Some thoughts on – do managers have to be educated? (English edition)

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By Peter Paschek

“The corporation is not only an economic tool, but as a social institution it is also a political tool” – Peter F. Drucker

“I do not know whose mind is broader, must be broader, than the mind of a true merchant” – Johann W. Goethe

Do managers need educating? If so, how?

Formost managers, the problem is not that education is lacking but that it is one-sided, i.e. exclusively for the one area of professional activity. Of course, Peter Drucker argued that the first social responsibility of the manager is sustainable economic performance. And as he also said “that there is no knowledge in a practice unless it has utility”. So management education must provide managers with knowledge that they can use in their work.

But that begs the question what the real tasks and challenges of the manager in our knowledge society are’. Once again Drucker provides the answer: “The demand has arisen that managers and especially business managers make concern central to the conduct of business itself …and this means that the manager of any institution (particularly of business) has to think through what the policy should be in the general interest and to provide social cohesion … This demand requires new thinking and new action on the part of the manager. It cannot be handled in a traditional manner. It cannot be handled by public relations”.

A Day of Drucker 2021

No politics, we’re managers

When in 2013–2014 the Institute for Democracy Research at the University of Göttingen quizzed 160 German top managers on their view of politics and society, most did not see themselves involved in the political process at all, leaving it to their associations or PR departments to influence the legislative process as necessary; many expressed mystification that politicians do not simply work “more efficiently” and saw their job as creating framework conditions – as a kind of service provider for a functioning economy.

While reading this study, I thought of Drucker’s remark that the book he most regretted not writing was “managing ignorance”. The consequence of this non-relationship with politics is defensive or non-participation in the shaping of the political discourse of civil society, and likewise when it concerns managers’ own social performance.

Earlier this year, an article in the Neue Züricher Zeitung noted that Covid had given scientists a potent stage to show how useful their trade is. But although companies that helped develop, produce and supply vaccines, or supported scientists with loans, also demonstrated their indispensability, they never received the same kudos as scientists”.

The author rightly calls on companies to actively promote their services to society to a public “which often notices them only in connection with scandals”. By abandoning debates in the public sphere “to the left”, managers leave the way open for social groups to use the image of the evil, profit-maximising capitalist, to justify their appeals to utopia.

Responsibility for discourse

This is underlined by the philosopher and economist Karl Homann who, channeling Drucker, adds to the manager’s responsibility for action and order, responsibility for discourse – the duty to intervene in public discussions in a formative way. To do justice to the responsibility for discourse, Homann continues, managers must acquire the necessary skills. Which brings us back to education.

In 1955, echoing Max Weber’s gloomy premonitions half a century earlier, philosopher and sociologist Helmuth Plessner warned of the rise of “the uneducated expert, the functionary of his subject, the pure specialist” as the consequence of turning universities into professional schools. A good hundred years after Weber, the Austrian philosopher Konrad Liessmann reenforced Weber and Plessner.

Yawning gaps in the simplest historical and cultural-historical questions characterise the education of the elites in modern society, according to Liessman, while the universities flog the oldest offcuts of the leadership industry as the latest thing.

Liessmann may exaggerate slightly, but like many of his colleagues, his great failing is his failure to offer practical remedies. One of the exceptions is Peter Drucker. Ever the engaged observer, Drucker sees it as his responsibility as an intellectual to exert a guiding influence on society – a responsibility that for Drucker is shared by all representatives of social groups who have power or influence on the structures of a society and its supporting norms.

Management and the humanities

1987, Drucker referred to management as “workmanship”, or techne. Yet it is more than that, concerning not just things, but more especially people. Therefore, Drucker concludes, management is “empirical skills and indeed a bunch of tricks and rules of thumb” but also “in itself a liberal art.” In other words the humanities have to be an organic part of management teaching. As well as professional skills, the British social historian John Hendry put it, managers “need grounding in the messy realities of the human condition, an understanding of politics and culture, and an awareness of the historical forces that have shaped the world in which we live.”

Writing in 2006, Homann asserted that neither education nor training had prepared managers for the assumption of responsibility for discourse. But this was an argument for “for reforming education accordingly”, rather than rejecting the task. Taking stock of the situation 10 years later, I borrowed a quote from the philosopher Jürgen Mittelstrass in a similar context: “The awareness is there, theory and practice are still lagging behind”.

Five years on again, have theory and also practice at last “got going”?

I can answer this question with an unequivocal “yes” as regards the TU Munich, where I have lectured for several years and which rightly bears the epithet “the entrepreneurial university”. Partly as a result of prescient decisions made 20 years ago, teaching programmes are flexible, leaving room for student initiative in shaping them. This also applies to the integration of the humanities into degree programmes. These openings are increasingly being taken up by students. Another milestone is TU Munich’s foundation of an institute for lifelong learning earlier this year, which embraces all faculties, not just economics.

Reasons for hope – and scepticism

Such developments give hope for the future. But what steps do established managers take today to continue their education?

I recently discussed this question with a close friend who as entrepreneur and investor is on the plane almost every week. We compared the situation today with that of 1980, when in an article entitled “No time, no time, no time”, sociologist and philosopher Christian von Krockow, observing the habits of business travellers on trains, wondered about the future of a society in which those in leadership positions not only had no time for reflection or to think ahead, but also apparently relied on the tabloid press for information and opinion. For my friend, today’s time pressures have not become lighter, while as regards media the only difference is that executives now consume their light entertainment magazines online rather than on paper.

Finally, a remark or two about the possibilities and limits of education.

Theodor W. Adorno was right when he said that education alone does not make a functioning society, but without education no functioning society is possible. To this it should be added that intellectual and moral education are not the same thing: the one does not imply the other.

And one more thing: it is not a question of educating managers to become a new breed of statesmen, but rather to create the possibility of more nuanced reflection on decisions as to whether it makes sense to strive for the economic maximum or to optimise with the inclusion of political uncertainties.

Needed: a new ethics of balance

Demands for ethical behaviour should also be guided neither by an overly optimistic nor by an overly pessimistic view of humanity. It is a question – in Plassner’s words – of balance: “To reckon with reality is to reckon with the devil, and to reckon with the devil without falling prey to him, without lowering standards … an ethics of balance taken to a high art”.

This might sound unambitious in relation to demands widely put forward today in the wake of the rediscovery of the human side of enterprise. But what matters is that the manager struggling in the profession’s “diabolical” force field, as Drucker says, does not knowingly do harm by word or action – and that is indeed a high art.

Education may not be a panacea – but it can help to ensure that a good heart is guided by a reflective head.

About the Author:
Peter Paschek, Management consultant since 40 years, shared a deep friendship with Peter Drucker for more than 20 years. His book: Peter F. Drucker – Erinnerungen an einen konservativ christlichen Anarchisten – was published in 2020.

This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to A Day of Drucker on June 30, 2021.

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