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Published: November 9, 2009
 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57

 
 

On Peter Drucker’s Centennial

Why the impact of this preeminent, farsighted management writer is still so difficult to gauge.

The late Peter Drucker was born in Austria on November 19, 1909, and spent a good many of his 96 years trying to understand the management of organizations. In the last couple of years, rumors have flown that this author or that one was working on a Drucker biography to be published in 2009, marking the centennial of his birth. Such a book has yet to emerge, and it is a shame. “The man who invented management” deserves a full-scale, well-researched, and critical account of his life and work.

But until such a book is written, we must make do with two new books about Drucker that might be considered preludes to a biography. The first is Bruce Rosenstein’s Living in More Than One World: How Peter Drucker’s Wisdom Can Inspire and Transform Your Life (Berrett-Koehler, 2009), a loving account of how the author applied lessons from Drucker’s life and writings to help him get through trying personal times. Limited as its focus may be, the book is nonetheless authoritative because Rosenstein spent a great deal of time with Drucker over the last 12 years of the great man’s life. The other book, Jeffrey A. Krames’s Inside Drucker’s Brain (Portfolio, 2008), is a useful distillation of Drucker’s thinking. Like Rosenstein’s book, it was informed by in­terviews with Drucker and stands more as a (much deserved) tribute than a critical biography.

A formal, analytical, and un­sentimental biography of Drucker would be a complicated undertaking because the catholicity of his interests makes it impossible to pigeonhole his work and devilishly difficult to evaluate his overall contribution. He wrote imaginatively about a wide array of subjects, in­cluding economics, technology, history, politics, demography, and even Asian art. He was not a systematic thinker who propounded a single message or set of beliefs (in philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s famous construct, Drucker was a “fox” with many ideas rather than a “hedgehog” with one big idea). He wrote knowledgeably about all aspects of the corporation, explicating the complexly interrelated functions and roles of planning, strategy, marketing, structure, labor relations, performance measurement, and leadership.

“My main point,” Drucker wrote, “is that the organization is a human, a social, indeed, a moral phenomenon.” In terms of the last, he stressed not the power of executives but, instead, their responsibilities. (Tellingly, the subtitle of his 1974 magnum opus, Management — basically a compendium of all that was known about the subject at the time — is Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices.) With the 1957 publication of America’s Next Twenty Years, he took his place as the nation’s first “futurist,” a role he returned to time and again, notably in his 1976 The Unseen Revolution: How Pension Fund Socialism Came to America, in which he anticipated many of the problems corporations would encounter in subsequent years as a result of the way pensions were traditionally funded. Once, when my coauthor Warren Bennis praised him publicly for his foresight, Drucker had this surprising reaction: “It was meant as a compliment, but I winced because, bluntly, I was 10 years premature with every one of my forecasts. And that’s not a compliment. That is saying that one has had no impact.”

Indeed, the most problematic part of evaluating Drucker’s work is measuring its impact. As widely read as he is, few executives ever have claimed to manage in his name. His classic 1946 study of General Motors Corporation, Concept of the Corporation (reissued, significantly, in 1972, when GM was first starting to lose ground to Japanese competitors), identified the cultural and organizational problems that would lead to the humbling and eventual nationalization of that once great company. Prophetically, he concluded that “GM is an organization of managers and management...not an innovative company.” It was too impersonal, too addicted to technique, and too concerned with scientific mea­surement and controllable facts “when what is needed is not facts but the ability to see facts as others see them.” His warnings went un­heeded by GM’s leaders, as did so much of his writing by so many other executives.

 
 
 
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