In an era of rapid technological and social change, in which new management jargons seem to rise even faster than the disruptive startups that coin them, the career of Peter Drucker is perhaps as instructive as his writings themselves. Why do his writings remain so fresh and vibrant today? How did he avoid both authoring passing fads and jumping on others’ bandwagons?
For one thing, he was a citizen of the world. Drucker himself lived in Austria, Germany, England, and eventually the United States. The upper middle classes of turn-of-the-century Vienna emphasized education, culture, art, music, historical consciousness, urbanity, and international openness, and Drucker learned from an astonishing array of his contemporaries — in his memoirs, Adventures of a Bystander, he recalls his acquaintances with luminaries like Buckminster Fuller, the physicist, and Marshall McLuhan, the communication scientist who popularized the phrase “global village.” Drucker did indeed inhabit such a village, and that cosmopolitanism surely helped him develop some of his trademark perspective.
But the story behind his career only begins there. We can also think of Peter Drucker as a time traveler, not only because he had an encyclopedic knowledge of historical facts, but because he could place contemporary events into historical context and infer future developments. Drucker interpreted the future in a unique way not only because he was a man of the world, but because he was a man of the past.
I once asked Professor Drucker — as I still think of him — whether he considered himself more a historical writer or a management thinker. Without much hesitation, he answered, “more a historical writer.” Drucker’s historical competence cannot, of course, be interpreted “mechanically.” History does not repeat itself, nor does it follow given laws, as Karl Marx or Oswald Spengler have suggested. Nevertheless, it can be said that the human being has changed very little during the known course of history. We gain, therefore, valuable insight when we interpret current developments and the future in light of historical analogies.
This perfectly describes Peter Drucker’s great strength — as well as the most notable weakness of those management authors whose knowledge of history is sporadic and superficial, or totally nonexistent. Drucker possessed a much broader foundation of historical knowledge which set him apart from those who have dubbed themselves specialists of entrepreneurial history, but have only covered a small portion of this field.
Drucker’s book, Management Challenges for the 21st Century, is an example. His consideration of information technology in light of the history of the printing trade leads to surprising conclusions. As he saw it, the winners of the IT revolution are not the hardware or software developers of today, but rather the companies which have access to knowledge and content.
In business management, it is easy to fall victim to the buzzwords or trends of the day when historical understanding and consciousness are lacking. When that happens, authors and thinkers purport to create something new, when they are really only serving old wine in new wineskins. This recalls the comments of the philosopher George Santayana that history will repeat itself for those who do not want to learn from it.
Because Peter Drucker understood history as few others do, he could elucidate the future in a way that is characteristic only to him — with detailed and extensive knowledge, clever and unusual associations, and a willingness to immerse himself in ideas. One of my favorite anecdotes about him involves all three facets.
Many years ago, I asked him how familiar he was with The Oracle Manual and the Art of Worldly Wisdom by the Spanish Jesuit Balthasar Gracian (1601-1658). I was impressed that the famous philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer learned Spanish just to enable himself to read that work in its original language. Drucker was not only well acquainted with Gracian and his works, but went Schopenhauer one further. Professor Drucker wrote to me:
My father gave [the book] to me as a present 72 years ago when I left Vienna to become a business apprentice in Hamburg…. A few months later I discovered [Danish philosopher Soren] Kierkegaard. And these two have become the poles of my life. Because of Gracian, I taught myself enough Spanish to read his work in its original language – and along with that I learned enough Danish to also read Kierkegaard’s work in its original language.
In addition to his global outlook and deep knowledge of history, Drucker’s mind possessed yet another trait which I have observed to such a great extent only in the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges: the skill of bisociation. Borges seemed not only to have read everything, but he also had the skill of making the most improbable connections and associations. The same was true for Peter Drucker. He drew parallels and recognized commonalities between historical, current, and future developments, stretching broad intellectual arcs between them. Personalities such as Drucker and Borges seemed to have encyclopedic memories. Yet this alone was not enough; the real skill is the ability to make bisociative connections. Hungarian author (and Drucker contemporary) Arthur Koestler considered this competence the true source of creativity.
When Peter Drucker taught us, he used history as his tool. He held a mirror in front of us that continues to open new perspectives and helps us better understand the future.
About the author:
Hermann Simon is the author of the newly published Confessions of the Pricing Man. He is the founder and chairman of the consulting firm Simon-Kucher & Partners