by Meridith Levinson

Peter Drucker as Life Coach: New Book Shares Visionary’s Wisdom

Nov 04, 2009
CareersPersonal Software

The "father of modern management" had as much to say about self-management and personal development as he did about innovation and organizational effectiveness, says Bruce Rosenstein, the author of a new book on Peter Drucker. In this revealing Q&A, Rosenstein shares what you can learn from Drucker's life, legacy and lack of e-mail.

Most people think of Peter Drucker as a business visionary, and for good reason. Drucker, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated posthumously this month, was a renowned management professor and consultant, retained by some of the biggest and most powerful companies, including General Electric, Procter & Gamble and IBM. He was also a prolific writer, having published 39 books on management and penned a column for The Wall Street Journal for 20 years, in addition to writing for Forbes, Fortune, The Atlantic and other leading publications.

No one questions Drucker’s impact on the business world. But what many people may not realize is that the “father of modern management” had as much to say about self-management and personal development as he did about innovation and organizational effectiveness, says Bruce Rosenstein, author of Living in More Than One World: How Peter Drucker’s Wisdom Can Inspire and Transform Your Life (Berrett-Koehler, August 2009.)

Rosenstein, a former business writer and librarian for USA Today, is a bona fide Drucker devotee, having studied Drucker’s work since 1986. He’s read every book by or about Drucker, and he conducted one of the last face-to-face interviews with Drucker seven months before his death in November, 2005. Rosenstein says personal development was a recurring theme in Drucker’s work dating back to the early 1950s, and that Drucker was a paragon of practicing what he preached.

“Drucker is the ultimate role model for knowledge workers,” says Rosenstein. “We can learn so much about self-development from what he taught and how he lived his life. I found these messages about running your own life scattered through his many books and articles, that weren’t pulled into one book.”

Rosenstein collected all of Drucker’s self-management wisdom—gleaned from interviews and Drucker’s writing—in his book, Living in More Than One caught up with Rosenstein by phone, while he was at Claremont Graduate University’s Drucker School of Management to honor the guru’s centennial. Rosenstein spoke about Drucker’s life, legacy, and the advice he might give to IT professionals who’ve been displaced by the recession.

[ For more articles on Peter Drucker, see A Conversation with Peter Drucker and Five Things William Cohen Has Learned from Peter Drucker ]

CIO: When did you first meet Peter Drucker?

Bruce Rosenstein: The first time I met him in person was when I interviewed him in 2002 in Los Angeles. I had already had some interaction with him by doing fax interviews. At that late in his life, his hearing was pretty bad, so he preferred to do interviews by fax [rather than over the phone.]

When I first met him face to face, he was the keynote speaker for the 2002 Special Libraries Association’s annual conference. I was there to attend the conference and to interview him for USA Today. I did a four hour interview with him in his hotel room and at a Japanese restaurant in the hotel the night before his keynote. This was during the corporate scandals, and we talked about all sorts of things, especially the scandals. He brought in that broad, historic perspective he was known for. He told me he wasn’t surprised by the scandals because he had seen things like it in the past. It was a wonderful experience, but it was exhausting. I left him at 11 o’clock that night. He gave his keynote at 9:30 the next morning.

You said you did interviews with Drucker by fax. Did he ever use e-mail?

I don’t think he did. My understanding is that he wasn’t a computer user. It’s possible that in some cases he used e-mail. His wife, Doris, might have sent them for him. For all I know he had an e-mail account at The Drucker School, but I was told to fax my interview questions to him.

Is it ironic that a man who wrote so eloquently about the way information technology was transforming companies wasn’t an e-mail user?

I attribute it to his age, but that’s just conjectured on my part. He knew a lot about technology and many, many people in the tech world. I don’t think he had any sort of aversion to e-mail. I think he had his way of doing things, and toward the end of his life he didn’t feel the need to change it.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about Peter Drucker?

I would say the biggest misconception is that he’s only a management writer because he’s in the management section of book stores or that only management people should read him. His appeal is way broader than that.

As we get farther and farther from his death, which wasn’t that long ago, I’m also finding people who have heard of him, but who don’t realize he died. I’m running into more and more younger people who only have the haziest notion of who he was and who don’t know if he’s still alive.

Do you think that’s because his work is so timeless and relevant?

His work is certainly relevant and timeless. His book, Concept of the Corporation, which is based on GM in 1946, came up a lot during the GM bankruptcy. It’s interesting that something so old, that’s not in tons of bookstores, is still referenced so often. Drucker himself is referenced so often. That could be one reason [people think he’s still alive]. People see this stuff and they don’t associate him with any particular era.

What did Drucker have to say about personal development?

He really wanted people to work hard and focus on work, but he also realized that there were other aspects to life, and those things help you work. In his 1952 article for Fortune, How to Be an Employee, he said you have to develop the whole person. You don’t develop just one part of yourself, the part at work. You develop the whole person by having meaningful leisure pursuits. If your self-worth is tied up in your job and you lose that job, what does that do to your self worth? He was acutely aware of that. He said people needed multidimensional lives so that if they had a setback in one area, it wouldn’t kill them. He asked people to really think about their lives and to build continuous learning into their lives.

“The person who will make the greatest contribution to a co is the mature person, and you can not have maturity if you have no life or interest outside the job.”—Peter Drucker, from “How To Be an Employee,” Fortune 1952. (Also published in People and Performance: The Best of Peter Drucker on Management (Harpers College Press 1977)

In what ways did Peter Drucker live a multidimensional life?

He was a well-rounded workaholic. I think he reveled in being a workaholic. He wrote so many books that sold really well and had a devoted audience worldwide. He wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal for 20 years, and he wrote for Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic Monthly and Forbes. He had a long-standing teaching career. He has a school named after him. He was a sought-after consultant by for-profit companies and nonprofits.

He also read important literature. He was very much into music, especially classical music. He was a real appreciator of art. I understand he had a wonderful collection of Japanese art, and he taught Japanese art at Pomona College. He was married 68 years, had four children and six grandchildren. He worked really hard at all of these things.

He did self-introspection, as far as I can tell, right up until the end of his life. He had three-year self-study systems where he’d pick a subject and study it, until very late in his life. This is a guy who’s deep into old age, yet he still wants to be relevant, do excellent work, and think about his life and how it affects other people. Drucker is a really extraordinary person, and we can learn a lot from looking at his life.

What advice do you think Drucker would give to veteran IT professionals who’ve been displaced during this recession?

I want to preface this by saying that I don’t want to put words in his mouth. I can’t say exactly what Drucker would have said because he could be kind of a contrarian and say things you wouldn’t necessarily expect. I want to be clear that these are my thoughts based on my study of Drucker’s thought.

A lot of times he took a tough love approach. These may not be ideal circumstances, but you have to face the reality of what happened and what you’re going to do about it. There’s a direct quote from The Effective Executive from over 40 years ago that’s still applicable: “Focus on the future and not the past.” In other words, don’t get too hung up on what you’ve done in the past.

I think Drucker would also say focus on the opportunity. As bad as it can be to be downsized, it gives you the opportunity to ask yourself if you want to continue in your line of work or do something different in the future. One of his other points was aiming high at something that will make a difference.

Drucker was big on this idea of balancing action and self-reflection. Take some time for self-reflection. Don’t spend too much time feeling sorry for yourself. Use that time productively to do some self-assessment on where things stand now. Do you need more schooling? If you haven’t been networking, build up your network. Find out what you can learn from other people. Use the time for some sort of volunteer activity. If you’re not involved in a professional association, get involved. If you are involved, deepen your involvement.

He would focus on the whole opportunity [that the layoff presents]: It’s not great, especially if it was a job you liked, but what can you do in the future that’s meaningful to you. You’ve got this opportunity. Where are you going to go with it?