He is known as the Sage of Claremont, referring to the school in southern California where he lives, teaches, and writes. He is still vigorous in his early nineties, and people come from around the world to hear him. And he comes to the world via satellite lectures. "I like bigness," he says. Today he splits his consulting time between fee-paying and pro bono clients. And in the process he is continuing to do what he has done for seven decades: persuade, nudge, and cajole organizations to regard workers as resources and management as the enabler of organizational effectiveness. He is Peter Drucker.
Born in Vienna in 1909, Drucker recalls his earliest memory at age 5 as someone in his family referring to the "end . . . of civilization." It was the beginning of World War I, which ended the spirit of the nineteenth century and ushered in the modern age, complete with its own horrors but also its possibilities. Somehow it seems fitting that Drucker, the creator of a new way of viewing management that would destroy an older form, would have this as his first memory.
First and foremost, Drucker considers himself a writer. In fact, he had been an accomplished financial writer prior to his emigrating to the United States from Germany as Hitler was coming to power. While his views have evolved over the decades, chiefly under the influence of behavioral scientists like Abraham Maslow, Drucker is noted for the significance of his work, the constancy of his message, and the frequency of his messages. He is a leadership communicator par excellence.
His exploration of the management scene began with an assignment from a senior vice president at General Motors who wanted to find out what made his company tick. The result was The Concept of the Corporation. Alfred Sloan, the chairman of General Motors, hated the book, but he did not discourage Drucker from publishing it. Fortunately, Drucker did so. American management was never to be quite the same.
The Concept of the Corporation made a strong case for a reexamination of the social contract between labor and management. Workers should be regarded as a "resource, not a cost," and they should have a role in the corporation's governance. Drucker also examined the dehumanization that occurs in large industrial corporations. At the same time, as his biographer, Jack Beatty, points out, Drucker was not a "Bolshie"; he argued that profit was "the pre-condition of industrial society." Furthermore, this was the book that introduced Sloan's concept of decentralization; over time, this concept was adopted by more than three-quarters of American businesses. And while Drucker may have been unwelcome at General Motors, he emerged as a leading consultant to American businesses. (It is worth noting that General Motors has repaired the breach and now maintains good relations with Drucker.)
Drucker's seminal management work—in fact, the work that many credit with inventing the field of management—is The Practice of Management. Appearing in 1954, this resource quantified the role of the manager as the person responsible for goals (management by objectives) and concerned with the accomplishment of results through others, as well as having a total perspective on the business and its place in the competitive landscape.
What Drucker did in this resource, and 20 years later in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, was to quantify the manager's role, not in some learn-by-rote, restrictive way, but rather in a Churchillian neo-heroic way that would cause the manager to see himself (and later herself) as one who can accomplish things, and in so doing aspire to something greater. That theme of aspiration for something better—a new system, a new management discipline, a new social order—is inherent in all of Drucker's work.
From where do Drucker's ideas spring? He learns as he talks to people, and he also discovers his point of view as he teaches or writes about it. Curiously, Drucker credits a course in admiralty law, which he took as part of a doctoral program in Germany in the twenties, with giving him his management insights. To Drucker, management is "an integrating discipline of human values and conduct, of social order and intellectual inquiry . . . feed[ing] off economics, psychology, mathematics, political theory, history, and philosophy. In short, management is a liberal art."
Drucker is as much a social philosopher as he is a management consultant. His canvas is not limited to the boardroom, or even to the spans of a global corporation. Drucker has a wondrous ability to link the issues and challenges of modern management with history, be it ancient Greece, Rome, or China. He drops in historical anecdotes the way other writers use punctuation. The effect is to place management squarely within the entire span of human history. And lest we forget it, Drucker is a teacher; his books are his lectures, his visions, and his arguments for adopting new ways of thinking and doing.
At the same time, Drucker knows how to keep it simple. He loves organizing concepts into easy-to-remember paradigms, e.g., "The Ten Rules of Effective Research . . . The Five Deadly Business Sins . . . Two Cores of Unity." The contrast between the grand themes and the plain and simple gets to the core of Drucker's influence—he is relatively easy to understand. He is not simplistic; his words, images, stories, and paradigms are used to make the abstract seem vivid and accessible.
One of his later essays, Managing Oneself, applies his management insights to the individual. In the article, Drucker makes a striking insight into leadership communication styles with another of his historical allusions. He relates how General Dwight Eisenhower was loved by the press for his crisp, succinct responses to their questions. A decade later, President Eisenhower was reviled for his mumbling responses and his butchery of the language. The reason, writes Drucker, is that Eisenhower was a reader, and he read specially prepared briefing papers prior to his wartime press conferences. As president, Eisenhower tried to rely on give-and-take with the press and wing his answers; it didn't work. Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were listeners and could roll with the reporters' questions. For Drucker, it is a matter of knowing how you process information, orally or printed. Knowing what you are will enable you to communicate your point of view more effectively.
Drucker devotes a chapter to managerial communications in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. He draws a distinction between information and communication. Information is data—"formal" and "logical." Communications is perception—how we interpret the data. Communications then becomes, as Drucker says, "the mode of an organization," meaning how the organization uses communications to function. Commands (e.g., information) flow downward, but genuine communications (perception) stands apart from hierarchy; it is peer to peer or person to person.
In The Concept of the Corporation, Drucker writes that "Management is the organ of institutions, the organ that converts a mob into an organization, and human efforts into performance." For Drucker, it is management that tames the wild beast of anarchy and enables people working together to achieve great results. And it is Drucker's words and teachings that have made the topic accessible to generations of managers.
Jack Beatty, The World According to Peter Drucker (New York: Free Press, 1998), p. 3.Ibid., pp. 49-68.Ibid., pp. 56-60.
Ibid., pp. 184-185.
Stuart Cranier and Gary Hamel, The Ultimate Business Library: 50 Business Books that Made Management (Oxford: Capstone Publishing, 1997), pp. 75-81.
Peter Drucker, "Managing Oneself," Harvard Business Review, March-April 1999; and Beatty, World According to Drucker, p. 30.
Peter Drucker, Landmarks of Tomorrow: A Report on the "Post-Modern" World, 1959, pp. 141-142, and Peter Drucker, The Frontiers of Management, p. 227, quoted in Beatty, World According to Drucker, p. 14.
Beatty, World According to Drucker, pp. 25-26.
Drucker, "Managing Oneself."
Peter Drucker, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (New York: Harper Business, 1973, 1974), pp. 481-493.
Peter Drucker, Concept of the Corporation, (1945), p. 132, quoted in John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge, The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus (New York: Times Books, 1996), p. 77.