The Practice of Management by Peter Drucker (1954)

The Practice of Management, by Peter Drucker (1954)

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Some self help books are overnight wonders, while others are slow burners which have their influence over the course of time. This seems true of The Practice of Management, and the other twenty-nine books that Peter Drucker wrote. These have certainly endeared themselves to senior executives, largely one suspects because of   Drucker’s ability to write quotable epigrams like ‘Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.’ ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it;’ and ‘Efficiency is doing better what is already being done.’  Drucker learnt these skills in his parents home in Vienna which was then the European centre of early twentieth century culture. His father was a lawyer, and held learned discussions in his home with family friends like Joseph Schumpeter the Austrian economist, who taught young Peter the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship. As a family friend recalled: ‘Peter absorbed not merely their content but worldliness and a style of expression.’  After gaining a doctorate in international law, Drucker set out to work as an economic journalist.

A turning point in his life came in 1934 when he visited London and heard a lecture given by John Maynard Keynes. As he later recounted: ‘I suddenly realised that Keynes and all the brilliant economic students in the room were interested in the behaviour of commodities while I was interested in the behaviour of people.’ That remained his lifetime focus. People were a company’s major asset, he constantly declared. He wasn’t interested in the manipulation of statistics and figures; the motivation and management of people was his prime concern. This was revealed in the scores of aphorisms which poured from his pen. ‘The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.’ ‘The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.’ ‘Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibilities.’ ‘Management by objectives works – if you know the objectives. Ninety percent of the time you don’t.’

He was not a scientist, but a conceptual thinker. He was by inclination a polymath, and held that management was a ‘liberal art’ which shouldn’t be wholly reliant on accountancy data, but rather on a broad based knowledge of psychology, philosophy, history and sociology. His weakness, which was exploited by his critics, was that he had no concrete proof of any the proposals he made. He quit Germany, to escape the Nazi pogroms, and went to the USA settling initially in New York where he worked as a university professor, freelance writer and business consultant. His combination of erudition and chutzpah captivated some and irritated others. Pose the right questions and the answers will follow, he assured his followers. In his consultancy work he relied on his own appreciation of the situation and would tell his clients: ‘My job is to ask the question. It’s your job to provide answers.’ When a rival management consultant asked him how he came up with so many original insights he replied: ‘I learn only through listening – to myself.’ As his fame grew he attracted considerable media attention, and he jokingly remarked that he didn’t like to be called a ‘guru’, a word which journalists only used because ‘charlatan’ was too long to fit into their banner headlines. As a result of the acclaim he was invited to California to set up the first MBA course for working managers at the Claremont Graduate University. ‘I wrote The Practice of Management’ he said, ‘because there was no book on management. So I kind of sat down and wrote it, very conscious of the fact that I was laying the foundations of a discipline.’  The book went on to become the most influential management book of its day. In it he advocated management by objectives, simplification, decentralization and the need for adaptation rather than dependence on past successes, a change he referred to as ‘planned abandonment’.  At times his advice had a quasi-religious aspect. He had a fervent belief that great companies could stand among humankind’s noblest inventions, and was well ahead of his time in suggesting that firms should engage in what is now known as Corporate Social Responsibility programmes. This he advocated, not to boost the company’s public image, but so that company workers could regain a sense of belonging and community pride. His aim, he said, was to restore ‘the civic responsibility that is the mark of citizenship and the civic pride that is the mark of the community.’ He went on to write a further thirty-nine books which were translated into over thirty different languages, but none was as successful as The Practice of Management. He was awarded twenty-five honorary doctorates from universities around the world, and even had a street in California named after him, but his influence has waned, and his seminal book is not on the required reading list of any of today’s business schools, largely because his work is held to be too subjective and superficial.

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