November 25, 2005
News & Opinion: Tom's Take on Peter Drucker
Peter Druckers work calls two masters to mind: Bob Marley and William Shakespeare. What About Bob, you ask. Well, Drucker brings Marley to mind (my mind at least) for his central, solar, role in his universe. Theres no musical genre so dominated by one artist as reggae music is by Bob Marley. Linton Kwesi Johnson gets my vote as a genius, sure, but the scope and influence and genius of Marley animates all. Likewise Drucker with management writing: his oeuvre recapitulates virtually everything meaningful in the field. And while its overblown to compare him with Shakespeare as a canon of world literature, reading Drucker invariably triggers a sense of executive dj vu. His ideas feel so familiar compared with every major business idea that has come upon the scenesince his work. As the Economist says, The biggest problem with evaluating Mr. Druckers influence is that so many of his ideas have passed into conventional wisdomin other words, he is the victim of his own success. The intellectual debt to Drucker dwarfs that of the US trade deficit. Case in point: Im re-reading The Effective Executive, which contains the key ideas of Brian Tracy, The One-Minute Manager, and much of David Allen, for starters. And there in chapter five, First Things First, which deals with prioritizing, Drucker riffs on the need for companies to make brutal strategic choices when pursuing opportunity. His assertion that in business the successful companies are not those that work at developing new products for their existing line but those that aim at innovating new technologies or new businesses basically sets the table for the works of Clay Christensen, Adrian Slywotzky, Chris Zook, and Blue Ocean Strategy, to name a few. And catch this gem from his brief intro to My Years with General Motors: Leadership is not charisma. It is not public relations. It is not showmanship. It is performance, consistent behavior, trustworthiness. Searching for A Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs anyone? Unfortunately theres been some backlash to the myriad Drucker tributes that have appeared over the past few weeks (Im not going to link to them). Essentially, a few folks have complained about the sentimentality of some of the tributes, while others have argued that if Drucker was so influential, more people would be benefiting from his ideas today. Point one rebuttal. Yes, many folks are verklempt about Druckers passing, even those who never met him. But why gripe about his ability to spark a personal response? I always admired Drucker for more than his ideas; his life was instructive and inspiring as well. Peter Drucker was a rare business guru who actually lived according to the powerful principles he counseled to others. Its hard enough to articulate a set of ideas that help other people get things done in the world, and tougher still to find a way for them to take root. And yet those accomplishments are mere training wheels compared to the X Games bicycle stunt competition of actually living by the ideals you preach. The lifecycle of consultancies fueled by fads is about as short and heated as Vinnie the Microwave Johnsons hot spells for the Detroit Pistons. For a number of very good reasons, when it comes to the world of management thinking and consulting, genius doesnt scale. The think tanks preaching speed-to-market take twice as long as others to produce articles and books; the guru preaching flat organizations creates companies with more job titles than your basic film credits. Theres rarely much intellectual alignment between great business ideas and the secular practice of spreading these principles, let along living them. Thats where Drucker taught by example. He wasnt just productive, he was effective. He didnt do things or projects, he got results. And he realized them on a massive scale by communicating his ideas to people who applied them powerfully. He focused his time and energy on what he did best. Simple and sensible, and yet so difficult. My current hero in this regard is Jim Collins, who makes a conscious effort to apply this ideas to his life (thats a subject for another post.) Finally, to reply to folks who gripe that Drucker should have been more influential. Bunk. The barriers to excellence here have nothing to do with the quality of his thinking or the way he delivered it. To paraphrase a guy I already cited, the fault, dear brute, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.