by CIO Staff

A Tribute to Peter Drucker

Dec 05, 20057 mins
IT Leadership

Perhaps it is fitting that Peter Drucker died on November 11. He told his biographer Jack Beatty that his first memory at age 5 in 1914 Vienna was hearing a relative announce that that war had been declared. The Great War effectively ended the colonialism and imperialism of the 19th century and ushered in the brave but very uncertain new world of the 20th century. Therefore, there is symmetry in the notion Drucker, who helped make sense of the new order through his 70 years of writing and consulting on management, would die in the 21st century on the anniversary of the end of the war to end all wars. In birth and education, Drucker belonged to an earlier world. In intellect and teaching, he was the professor of modern management.

Shaping the Minds of Managers

Identifying Drucker’s greatest contribution is as easy as throwing a dart at a dartboard. Imagine the dartboard contains the following labels: economist, historian, scholar, journalist, consultant, teacher. Any single one might do as a label. But perhaps the one he might select would be teacher. In a Harvard Business Review essay “Managing Oneself,” he admitted that before he could write about a subject he would have to teach it. And so he taught generations about what management is and what it can be, first at Bennington College in Vermont, later at New York University and finally at Claremont College. He did the same in his consulting work when CEOs would gather at his home. One can imagine those sessions being something like ones Socrates might have held. Drucker holding forth by posing ideas and questions, challenging assumptions and getting his acolytes – some of the most powerful men in business – to think about issues and re think their assumptions.

It is in his writings that we know Drucker best. He wrote some 40 books and thousands of articles. His initial masterwork was The End of Economic Man, followed in short order by Concept of the Corporation, a study of General Motors that Drucker admits influenced everyone except General Motors. Its publication in 1946 gave him the platform of authority and wisdom that lasted for the remainder of his long life.

Three great themes dominate Drucker’s library of works. The first is the concept of management as a discipline. He developed the idea of “management by objective” which was a means of targeting what you wanted to do and then putting people and systems in place to achieve it. Aligned with that concept is that businesses are in business to serve their customers. The second theme is that people are a resource. Curiously, it was the Japanese, in their quest to recover from the devastation of World War II, who embraced this concept most readily. After all, a people with scant natural and economic resources had very little else but themselves. The third theme is societal sustainability, how can we make the world as a better place. Toward this end, Drucker not only wrote about management of non profits but put his own time and energy into working with such organizations without fee. Over and above all of these is the concept that the Wall Street Journal aptly captured in its tribute piece to him “It’s All About People.”

Drucker coined the phrase “knowledge worker,” and by doing so made people the central focus of organizations. He wrote that organizations must learn to manage knowledge workers as if they were volunteers. Volunteers possess a zeal and commitment for what they do and if they do not see results, they move on. The same, Drucker believed, applies to knowledge workers in the for profit sector – give them a reason and show them results or they will tune out. The irony of what Drucker taught us is this: This is all obvious as well as correct. And with good reason — his ideas have become common currency, even when they are not practiced.

In his last essay for the Wall Street Journal, published in December 2004, he expounded on the role of the CEO, making the twofold proposition that while it is the CEO’s job to set direction for the company, it is also the company’s responsibility to help the CEO do his or her job. Reading the essay, I am struck by what always impresses me about Drucker: his breadth of knowledge. Here in one piece are mentions of the Jesuits, Herbert Hoover, Shakespeare, Alexander Hamilton and Siemens – all of whom are used to illustrate his arguments and provide insight for his prescriptives. That essay was written when he was 95.

But as with all teachers, the greatest legacy is with their students. Those paying tribute to Drucker in a Wall Street Journal article published on his death include executives and professors. Retired Intel CEO Andy Grove said that as “a young manager [he was] very skeptical about management gurus and consultants.” All doubts melted with Drucker. Grove said that Drucker’s words “spoke to me.”

Influencing One and All

Drucker did not reserve advice for the business elite. He counseled statesmen, governments, the clergy and non profits. One woman who was especially influenced by Drucker is Frances Hesselbein. When she first met Drucker at a gathering in New York, Hesselbein was CEO of the Girl Scouts. The two clicked and she persuaded him to consult for her organization, which he did pro bono. His experience there led him later to claim that the Girl Scouts was the best-run organization in America. In a tribute to her friend on his 90th birthday, Hesselbein, now chairman of the Leader to Leader Institute (originally the Drucker Foundation), said, “There is a magic about the Father of Modern Management – Peter Drucker – who writes and speaks to us in elegant, spare language that connects, inspires, moves us into the future. The vision he holds before us embraces us; we make it our own. And we think with leaders all over the world, ‘He did it just for us.’”

Teaching by doing right was another Drucker hallmark. Marshall Goldsmith, the renowned executive coach, author and leadership thinker, summed up his friend this way: “Peter Drucker not only taught me about management, he taught me about life. Through his example, he showed me the importance of loving what you do – and communicating this enthusiasm to others.” Goldsmith concluded that “Peter Drucker did not just teach by what he wrote – he taught by who he was.”

While I never had the opportunity to meet Drucker, I do feel connected to him in some way. His writings, which encompass both a love and respect for history coupled with penetrating insights about people and organizations, influence me greatly. I profiled him for one of my books and sent him a copy. A few weeks later, I received a letter with my address handwritten on the envelope. The return address read Claremont, California. I opened it and pulled out the very same letter I had sent him – with one important difference. There at the bottom was a handwritten note, “Thank you for your very interesting book. Peter F. Drucker.”

Going Forward

And what will become of us now that we no longer have the Sage of Claremont for guidance? His writings are his living legacy as are the legions of men and women he taught. One gets the very real sense that Drucker did not much care what others thought of him. Like most wise men he realized that his contribution lay in influence, that is, what people did with what he had taught them.

One of Drucker’s favorite quotations was about “shining a light,” a theme that Frances Hesselbein continues and with which she concluded her birthday tribute to him. “We all share a new call…to carry his philosophy, his works wherever we go in the future. And Peter Drucker will illuminate our future as he illuminated our past.”