Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change,
− Shakespeare, “The Tempest”
In the history of human thought there emerge, every now and then, individuals whose corpus of work brings into being a qualitative change in the knowledge and perceptions of the area of their concern. And it’s a change for something infinitely better. They redraw the boundaries of knowledge by their precise observation of empirical facts. Peter Drucker was one of those rare beings. He strove all his life to look out there, in the world, to derive ideas, challenging himself and those who came in his contact, “Look out the window, not in the mirror!” he fervently exhorted.
Drucker falls in line with thinkers like Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Frederick Taylor. They were all empiricists. Darwin wrote copious notebooks − page after page about pigeons and turtles, fishes and fossils. Freud used his therapeutic practice as a laboratory to fathom into the depth of human mind. Taylor conducted empirical experiments, systematically tracking thousands of details of people at work. Like them, Drucker immersed himself in empirical facts and then asked, “What underlying principle explains these facts, and how can we harness that principle?”
Drucker’s influence was truly global. The thirty-nine books he lived to write sold in millions, and they have been translated into nearly every major language in the world. His views on management, industrial organization, business strategy, leadership development and employee motivation have tutored not just companies but countries. You may recall Drucker served as a guiding guru to the postwar Japanese economic miracle. He earned a reputation for forecasting future social and economic trends. His concepts and coinages are the stuff of contemporary management thought. And they include “privatization”, “the knowledge worker”, “management by objectives” et al.
Drucker’s sole concern was with results. Whichever area of business operations he studied - leadership, or culture, or information, or innovation, or decentralization, or marketing, or strategy, or any other category − Drucker began first with the question “what accounts for superior results?” Thereafter, he derived answers. He started with the outputs and worked back to discover the inputs, not the other way around. He preached the religion of results not just to business corporations but equally to government and the social sector. The more noble your mission, the more he demanded. What will define superior performance? “Good intentions,” he vehemently maintained, “are no excuse for incompetence.”
And yet while practical and empirical, Drucker never became technical or trivial, nor did he succumb to the trend in modern academia to answer (in the classic words of the late John Gardner) “questions of increasing irrelevance with increasing precision.” By remaining a professor of management − not as a science, but as a liberal art − he gave himself the freedom to ask and pursue audacious questions. But behind the prickly surface, stands a man with genuinely felt compassion for the individual. He sought not just to make our economy more productive, but to make all of society more productive and, above all, more humane. To view other human beings as merely a means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves, Drucker believed, as profoundly immoral. All his writings are permeated by a deep concern for the individual.
Drucker was interested in the growing effect of people who worked with their minds rather than their hands. He was intrigued by employees who knew more about certain subjects than their bosses or colleagues and yet had to cooperate with others in a large organization. Rather than simply glorify the phenomenon as the epitome of human progress, Drucker analyzed it and explained how it challenged the common thinking about how organizations should be run.
His approach worked well in the increasingly mature business world of the second half of the twentieth century. By that time, large corporations had developed the basic manufacturing efficiencies and managerial hierarchies of mass production. Executives thought they knew how to run companies, and Drucker took it upon himself to poke holes in their beliefs, lest organizations should become stereotyped. But he did so in a sympathetic way. He assumed that his readers were intelligent, rational, hardworking people of good will. If their organizations struggled, he believed it was usually because of outdated ideas, a narrow conception of problems, or internal misunderstandings.
Drucker developed an extensive consulting business built around his personal relationship with top management. He became legendary among many of post-war Japan’s new business leaders trying to rebuild their war-torn homeland. He advised the heads of General Motors, Sears, General Electric, W.R. Grace and IBM, among many others. Over time he offered his management advice to non-profit organizations like the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. His advice was eagerly sought by the senior executives of the Adela Investment Company, a private initiative of the world’s multinational corporations to promote investment in the developing countries of Latin America.
In his eventful life time Drucker authored as many as 39 books. He also wrote two novels and a fascinating autobiography. He is also the co-author of a book on Japanese painting, and made as many as eight series of educational films on management topics. He also authored a regular column in the Wall Street Journal for 10 years and contributed frequently to the world renowned journals like Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Economist. Possibly, among the contributors to the prestigious Harvard Business Review Drucker wrote the maximum number of articles.
Peter Drucker also wrote a book in 2001 called The Essential Drucker. This book, which I most unreservedly recommend to my readers, offers, in Drucker’s words, “a coherent and fairly comprehensive introduction to management”. You’ll immensely enjoy reading it even if you don’t have anything to do with business or industry.
Criticism of Drucker’s Work
The Wall Street Journal researched several of his lectures in 1987 and reported that he was sometimes loose with the facts. Drucker was off the mark, for example, when he told an audience that English was the official language for all employees at Japan’s Mitsui trading company. (Drucker’s defense: “I use anecdotes to make a point, not to write history.”) And while he was known for his prescience, he wasn’t always correct in his forecasts. He predicted, for instance, that the nation’s financial center would shift from New York to Washington. It’s still in New York and is likely to continue there.
Others maintain that one of Drucker’s core concepts − “management by objectives” − is flawed and has never really been proven to work effectively. Dale Krueger said that the system is difficult to implement, and that companies often wind up overemphasizing control, as opposed to fostering creativity, to meet their goals. I can bear this out from my professional experience. As a young over-enthusiastic consultant I tried to implement it in the Ichapore Rifle Factory of the Ordnance Factory Board in West Bengal. After the initial stages the exercise had to considerably whittled down to make it practical.
Drucker’s classic Concept of the Corporation criticized General Motors at a time when it was, in some ways, the most successful corporation in the world. Many of GM’s executives considered Drucker persona non grata for a long time afterwards. Alfred. Sloan considered Drucker’s critiques of GM’s management to be “dead wrong”.
He Said it First
Part of Drucker’s success and longevity as a management expert was that he had a remarkable knack of spotting trends which have since been picked up and made fashionable by others. Invariably, research will trace the origin back to something Drucker wrote 10 or 20 years ago. In most cases Drucker was invariable a decade ahead of others with his forecasts.
According to Makers of Management by David Clutterbuck and Stuart Crainer Drucker was the first to:
define the role of top managers as the keepers of corporate culture
advocate mentoring, career planning and executive development as top management tasks
say that success hinges on the vision expressed by the CEO
show that structure follows strategy
suggest a reduction of management layers between the top and the bottom
argue that success comes from sticking to the basics
state that the primary purpose of the organization is to create a customer
say that success boils down to consumer sensitivity and the marketing of innovative products
suggest that quality is a measure of productivity
describe the coming knowledge worker
state that new approaches to management would be needed in the post-industrial age.
Ten Mool Mantras
The following ten propositions constitute, I reckon, the Mool Mantras of Drucker’s prolific writings
“Doing the right thing is more important than doing the thing right.”
“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”
“There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.”
“What gets measured gets improved.”
“Results are gained by exploiting opportunities, not by solving problems.”
“So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work.”
“People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”
“Meetings are by definition a concession to a deficient organization. For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.”
“Long-range planning does not deal with the future decisions, but with the future of present decisions.”
“Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things”.
How about mulling over further 8, 9 and 10? And then go once again to 2−5.
And lastly, which of the ten resonates most deeply with you?
"Drucker’s classic Concept of the Corporation criticized General Motors at a time when it was, in some ways, the most successful corporation in the world. Many of GM’s executives considered Drucker persona non grata for a long time afterwards. Alfred Sloan considered Drucker’s critiques of GM’s management to be “dead wrong”.
Mr.Drucker was exact to the point. GM was most successful even though GM produced junk cars, because there was no competition from Japanese auto companies.. GM would have been history without the relief from tax payers money.