28 Nov Praise for the principles of Peter
Peter Ferdinand Drucker was a tiny man with giant ideas. I’ll never forget the one and only time I saw him speak. It was in 1993 at a conference of business executives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There were one thousand of us packed in the ballroom of a hotel. Oddly for a keynote, Drucker spoke immediately after lunch. He had to be helped on stage and sat in an armchair but spoke effortlessly for almost two hours. No Powerpoint. No props. No nonsense. Just non-stop wisdom. Everyone in the room hung on his every, Austrian-accented word.
Often referred to as a “guru”, a term he apparently despised, Peter Drucker was a fount of managerial wisdom and universally known as “the father of modern management”. He was fascinated with the challenges of leadership but never fawned over or lionized CEOs. According to Andy Grove, co-founder of Intel, “He spoke in plain language that resonated with managers.” Jack Welch said of Drucker, “The world knows he was the greatest management thinker of the last century.”
Drucker provided an objective and well-informed perspective on the issues and trends of greatest significance to business leaders. He was able to connect the issues they faced to the bigger economic and social picture in ways that no one else really could. He was a brilliant mentor and teacher, with a knack for getting executives to ask the right questions, rather than telling them the answers. But he was more than a teacher and consultant. Drucker also contributed to management practice itself, with ideas like Management by Objective, an concept he introduced in the 1950’s that still endures today.
Drucker was in a league of his own. Most so-called visionaries and futurists interpret the world from the narrow perspective of their chosen academic or management discipline. They see things through the eyes of a marketer, an economist, a technologist, an accountant. Drucker on the other hand, was able to interpret the multiple disciplines of management through a sweeping kaleidoscopic perspective that put the issues and challenges facing managers and business into sharp relief.
It was in “The Future of Industrial Man” published in 1942 that Drucker first made the argument that corporations had a social as well as economic purpose. He never stopped believing this and would go on eloquently voicing his arguments for the next six decades. Indeed Drucker stood on the opposite side of scientific management pioneers like Frederick Taylor and Edwards Deming and their legions of zealots. His problem with their brand of thinking was that it failed to engage the creativity of the individual worker. To him management was neither routinized science nor intuitive art, rather it was a practice deeply rooted in a core philosophy and set of guiding principles.
BusinessWeek wrote, “Drucker was the first to assert that workers should be treated as assets not expenses. He originated the view of the corporation as a human community (in the 1950’s) built on trust and respect for the worker and not just a profit-making machine.”
It was also Drucker who identified the rise of “knowledge workers” (a term he is credited with coining) in the 1970’s. He wrote, “Attracting and holding talent have become two of the central tasks of management. Knowledge workers have many options and should be treated as volunteers. They’re interested in personal achievement and personal responsibility. They expect continuous learning and training. They want respect and authority. Give it to them.” Ever insightful, Drucker saw “knowledge workers as neither bosses nor workers, but something in between – entrepreneurs who had responsibility for developing their most important resource, brainpower, and who also needed to take more control of their own careers.”
It can be reasonably argued that Drucker had a greater impact on the practice of management than any other academic, yet ironically his work was seen as too superficial and not rigorous enough by many management scholars! According to James O’Toole of USC, “Peter would never have gotten tenure in a major business school.” Yet one school, Claremont College where he taught for over 20 years, was wise enough to name its management school after him.
Drucker understood the importance of leadership to people and people to leadership. Indeed, over the past three decades, he frequently questioned the behavior of business leaders. He drew the sad conclusion that corporations were becoming places where the self-interest of a few at the top took precedence over everyone else. He criticized CEO pay as early as 1984 and advocated holding their compensation to no more than 20 times what average workers make. (It is now over 400 times in America). According to BusinessWeek, “He was particularly enraged by the tendency of corporate managers to reap massive earnings while firing thousands of their workers. This is morally and socially unforgivable wrote Drucker and we will pay a heavy price for it.”
Dean Kees de Kluyver of the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management observed, “What distinguishes Peter Drucker from many other thought leaders in my mind is that he cared not just about how business manages its resources, but also how public and private organizations operate morally and ethically within society. He respected the values of education, personal responsibility, and business’ accountability to society. His true legacy is his insistence on this value system, and its effect on business, society, and individual lives.”
Peter Drucker represented not just the ideas of good management, but the conscience of leadership. While he will no longer counsel the corporate and government leaders of this world, I pray that the words and ideas that are his enduring legacy will continue to guide their thinking and actions for years to come.
What management thinkers or concepts most influence your organization’s leaders? Please e-mail Tony at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts and experiences.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.