Best Drucker Obituary: FT

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And the award for the best Peter Drucker obituary goes to- Simon London of the Financial Times:

Peter Drucker, who has died at the age of 95, hated being labelled as a “guru”. But that is what he was for thousands, probably millions, of managers. Never mind that the dictionary definitions of the word range from “venerable” and “weighty” to “mediator of divine truth.” To Drucker, guru was synonymous with “charlatan”. He preferred to be known, he often said, as “just an old journalist”.

As so often in his life, he was indulging not so much in false modesty as in good-humoured self-mockery. For he was manifestly very much more than that.

To his many admirers, in Asia almost as much as his native Europe (he was born in Vienna) and his adoptive United States, he was the grand old man of provocative theory and thoughtful practice. He could always be relied upon to provide a helping hand through the latest trends in politics, society, economics, and especially business.

For people whose only exposure to his work was a single article or speech, his constant use of the quick insight, the aphorism, the analogy and the metaphor sometimes created an impression of glibness. But Drucker saw this as an occupational hazard of communicating clearly about complex issues.

From his early writing days as a journalist in the 1930s to the very last years of his life, with several professorships and three dozen respected books behind him, he continued to believe that the best ideas have to be simplified, often to the limit, in order to be effective. When criticised in the 1980s for writing a cursory newspaper article about “the five rules of successful acquisitions”, he grinned ruefully and pronounced in typically gnomic Drucker-ese: “My best ideas have only one moving part.”

That hardly did justice to the erudition and sense of perspective which underpinned his commentary. His cool, deliberate analysis whether of “pork-barrel” politics, post-communist economics, or a range of management topics from leadership to productivity, motivation to marketing was peppered with a constant flow of vivid references and parallels drawn from history, and from fields as diverse as medicine, music, even the nursery.

Talking about the importance of entrepreneurship and innovation which occupied him powerfully in his later years, along with the growth of what he called “knowledge work” and management's wider role in society he revelled in such observations as “for the first four years, no new enterprise produces profits. Even Mozart didn't start writing music until he was four”.

Such bon mots were often more scurrilous, as in his remark that Friedrich Engels might never have made his seminal observations of the British working class if his sexual behaviour had not so scandalised his parents that they sent him out of his native Germany. Told in Drucker's strongly accented English, such stories produced a mixture of hilarity and wonder in his audiences.

He was certainly “one of the last encyclopaedics”, as he was introduced at a conference a few years ago. His knowledge reached far beyond the world of affairs, deeply into literature, biology and even Oriental art in which he was recognised as an authority even by the Japanese.

One of the most thoughtful analysts of Drucker's contribution to management, Alan Kantrow, says that “many of his ideas have become part and parcel of today's commonsense understanding of business. He had a pervasive influence.” Though by no means all his ideas were original, Drucker's real value, says Kantrow, lay in the rigour with which they were formulated. “One could learn more and more deeply from watching him think than from studying the content of his thought.”

For decades, many managers did just that. Whether they worked for Shell, Gillette, a British bank, a German engineering company, a large hospital complex, or a medium-sized shipping company, they paid repeat visits to sit at his feet, or buy his latest book. One such executive talked of needing his “Drucker fix” every two or three years.

Drucker's reputation, among many practitioners and theorists alike, as the father of post-war management went back to two of his early works, “Concept of the Corporation” in 1946, and “The Practice of Management” in 1954.

The former, a study of the workings of General Motors, was the first detailed account of the way a large company operated. The latter contained pathfinding work on such varied topics as the key role of marketing; the importance of clear objectives, both for the corporation and for the manager; and the need to balance long-term strategy and innovation against short-term performance.

This early work laid the foundation for such basic principles of modern business as asking: “What business are we in, and who are our customers?” It dealt with the recruitment and development of executives, the proper role of boards of directors, the defence of profits as an essential foundation of future survival, and the development of the responsible and productive worker.

Only on the last of these counts did Drucker's principles fail to be translated into practice. In a mid-1980s interview he called this “my most conspicuous failure”, grumbling that “only now that Japan has shown the way is it being taken seriously” in Europe and the US.

It was Drucker's ability to examine complex issues in depth, while also relating them to each other, that had such a strong influence on the study of management. Yet this landed him in bad odour with most business academics. “He is vastly undervalued by most academics”, Tom Peters, the management writer and Drucker disciple, said a few years ago. In several years at Stanford University, first as a masters student and then as a doctoral candidate, Peters found that “Drucker wasn't mentioned once. None of his work was on our reading lists”.

Things were little better at Harvard. Even though it offered him a professorship four times, Drucker chose instead to take up appointments at lesser institutions. Nor does Drucker rate much of a mention in most histories of management thought. All that is in spite of the fact that, as Peters puts it, “Drucker was the first to provide an intellectual framework to analyse the corporation”.

Drucker's own explanation of his relations with academia was revealing, not only of his own character and that of the university system, but of the nature of high-class gurudom. “Earlier theorists wrote only for a small circle their jargon was often impenetrable,' he said.

“I put together the bits and pieces of the jigsaw, including what was missing, such as the role of top management, strategy, management-by-objectives, entrepreneurship and innovation. I went to work on it and built a discipline. But I have a deep horror of obscurity and arrogance, so I presented it in a form that people could apply. I don't believe in specialisation, and academia has always resented that.”

In the words of Tom Peters: “Drucker effectively by-passed the intellectual establishment. So it's not surprising that they hated his guts.”

With the passing of the years, however, relations became a little less strained. Unlike most of the previous generation, several of the top business academics who came to prominance in the 1980s and 90s paid tribute to Drucker's impact on their own work. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, of Yale and then Harvard, admitted to having been influenced heavily by Drucker's early writings and praised his “remarkable” sense of being able to foretell the future.

Yet not everyone agreed. Despite Drucker's protestations about the importance of small business, he remained identifed with the notion that the large corporation was the centre-piece of society. And, right to the end of his life, he was typecast as having an excessively rational view of the management process.

Moreover, despite his praise ever since 1954 for Douglas McGregor's “Theory Y”, Drucker did not seem to fit comfortably into the school of enlightened motivation, which blossomed into management theories of worker 'empowerment'. He tended to use tell-tale phrases such as “the basic task of management is to make (our italics) people productive”. Peters, Moss Kanter et al would prefer the verb “encourage”. In the words of one long-standing student of Drucker's writing, “he was always a bit too top-down”.

In one sense, Drucker could be accused of having lost something of his intellectual vitality in his earlier years. Today's business community is searching for more advice on how to stimulate entrepreneurship and innovation, and how to manage joint ventures and strategic alliances. Drucker was writing about such issues extensively right up to his death, yet his basic view, expressed several years ago, was “we already know how to do all that just organise yourself properly”.

Right across the management spectrum, he claimed, “the academic work that's being done is on perfecting things it's variations on themes we all discovered some time ago”. Business studies had therefore entered a long and rather sterile period, he argued. The main exception to this view of the rather arid future of management studies concerned management as a social function. “We have become a society of organisations,” he used to say, in what became a familiar Druckerism. “Yet who takes care of the public good?”

The need for much better management extended not only to private enterprise, he argued, but also to the public sector and, much more broadly, to the body politic itself. In a memorable phrase, he said “politics has become the theatre of the absurd, with politicians declaiming in front of an empty audience, just like the Comédie Française. There's a new pluralism in society that we don't understand but that we have to make work”.

In his last few years, Drucker felt increasingly in common, to some extent, with Britain's Charles Handy that the major new challenges for management lie well beyond its commonly accepted field of operations. In the process of developing into “the distinct organ of our society” over the past 50 years, management had become intricately bound up with political, legal and social issues. It had, in other words, become “affected with the public interest”. To work out what that implied, for both theory and practice, would constitute the prime management agenda of the next 50 years, he forecast.

Peter Drucker might have ended his life a little weary of the “old” issues, as he saw them, but, half a century after his first breakthrough into management, he was still extending its boundaries with his customary energy and clarity of mind.

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