Economic crisis, political uncertainty, the dangers of extremism: these things haunt us today just as they shaped and influenced Peter Drucker many decades ago. Out of the tumult of the 1930s and 40s emerged the steady voice of the original and best management guru. What would he be saying now?
As the British politician Nye Bevan once asked: “Why look into the crystal ball when you can read the book?” Drucker, of course, left dozens of books for us to study. But in spite of his impressive output we seem to have lost sight of some of his timeless ideas. How many meetings that you attend begin with an agenda and the word “objectives” being written up on a flip-chart or other visual aid? And yet, a few (or more) hours later, how often has the discussion strayed far from the path that leaders declared they wanted to follow? “Mismanagement by missing objectives” was not what Drucker had in mind.
Over four decades ago Drucker alerted us to the emergence of something called a “knowledge worker”, who would have to be managed with great care. How good a job are we doing of managing them today? Drucker even suggested that we should think of our employees as, essentially, volunteers. And yet authoritarian corporate regimes continue to suppress initiative and new ideas, driving bright people away while preserving a sterile (and doomed) status quo. We had been warned, but we were not listening carefully enough.
In an age of over-complication and excessive noise Drucker’s voice can still cut through all the distractions. We need some of his lucidity today. We could start, for example, by turning again to his fundamental definition of the central task for any business: to “create” (find) and keep a customer. Is that what you are busy doing in your business? Is most of your energy being directed to meeting that challenge?
We could ask again his three basic questions for leaders: a) what business are you in? b) who are your customers? c) what are you doing for them that is valuable? These deceptively simple questions can force you to confront those under-discussed problems corporate leaders sometimes wish could just go away.
And we could recall perhaps his most important insight of all: that profitability is not in itself a purpose for business, just as breathing is not the purpose of life. Good businesses usually will be profitable, but commercial success comes as a result of doing the right things and operating in the right way.
In 1919 the Irish poet WB Yeats looked at the troubled post-war world and wrote:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
(“The Second Coming”)
A dose of Drucker right now would help the best develop some conviction, and persuade the worst to abandon their destructive “passionate intensity”. We don’t need a new guru. PF Drucker will do.
Stefan Stern, a former FT columnist, is Visiting Professor of management practice at the Cass Business School, London, and director of strategy at Edelman. He has attended all three of the previous Global Drucker Forum events.