THE JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP APPLICATIONS
Vol. 5, No. 7
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102
The Greatest Management Teacher in the World
“Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.“
© 2007 William A. Cohen, PhD
Peter F. Drucker, known as “The Father of Modern Management,” was the greatest management teacher
in the world. He invented Management By Objectives. He introduced the idea of decentralization . He was
the one that stated that workers needed to be treated as assets, not liabilities. He invented the term
knowledge worker.” He gave us much more, but above all Peter Drucker was a teacher, and one famous
worldwide. He boldly set out to teach executives of all types in all countries. He taught executives in
major corporations, he taught entrepreneurs, he taught those who ran non-profit organizations, and he taught the military. And, he taught me.
I was his first executive PhD graduate at Claremont Graduate University in what is now the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School
of Management in Claremont, California.
I think the “before and after” Peter shows what his classroom lessons did for me personally :
Before: I was a 30 something, former Air Force officer with little business or management experience, and I had never written a book.
After: I became an Air Force major general, a full professor at a major university, a university president, president of a company, and wrote 52 books which
were published in 18 languages.
The majority of Peter’s concepts with which the world is familiar can be found in his writings — 40 plus books and hundreds of articles.
However there were other lessons and emphases that are like buried treasure. They are lost lessons that came only in the classroom or one-on-
one discussions with managers and others he befriended or consulted for. Even then, they were difficult to understand if you weren’t there, and
sometimes, even if you were. Some were frustrated with his methods of teaching and writing, and some never did get it.
Jack Welch, who became CEO of GE was one who did. He consulted with Drucker shortly after becoming CEO of GE in 1981.At the time, GE was
a conglomerate of companies with some doing well and others less so. According to Welch, Drucker asked just two questions:
“If you weren’t already in a business, would you enter it today? If the answer is no, what are you going to do about it?” Welch decided that if one
of his companies weren’t number one or two in the industry, they would sell it. Over a 20-year tenure, this strategy led to a $400 billion increase in GE
capitalization and made GE’s reputation as a leading corporation and Welch’s reputation as America’s pre-eminent CEO. This incident illustrates
Drucker’s method of imparting knowledge. He asked questions and guided his students and suggested what to do. He did not tell them how to do it
or exactly how to use a lesson. Let me give a personal example.
A Class with Drucker
In one of the first classes I had with Peter, he began with a story about a company he had observed. As the president of the company grew older, he knew that he should begin thinking about succession. Fortunately, he had two vice presidents, both equally outstanding, of the right age and with a record of outstanding prior accomplishments with this firm. He increased the responsibility of both subordinate executives and gave them each the new title of executive vice president. He called both in together and announced that he intended to retire in five years and that one of the two would be named to succeed him as president.
Both men thanked the president for the opportunity. The president had confidence that he had picked the right candidates. Although both were ambitious, he knew that both would put the company before themselves in whatever they undertook. He knew that either would make an excellent replacement for himself.
Over the next five years of their apprenticeship a differing pattern began to emerge from each of the prospective presidents-to-be. Although both men did well in every task given them and were equally successful in accomplishing their assignments, the process each followed was quite different. One would be given a task by the president. He would request the information needed from the President and would ask when the job was to be accomplished. He would go off, gather his subordinates together and would invariably present the president with a completed job well done days, weeks, or months later. Unless he needed some specific information or permission to do something a little out of the usual process, he would do this without ever bothering the old president.
The other executive vice president took an entirely different approach. Given a project by the president, he, too would organize his subordinates to complete it successfully. However, there was a big difference. Unlike the first candidate who worked independently and didn’t bother the president with the details of what he was doing unless specific help was needed or a special circumstance about which he thought the president should be advised arose, the second candidate met periodically to discuss the project and frequent requested additional meetings, continually seeking the president’s advice. This clearly took of the president’s time.
“Now,” asked Drucker, “When the president retired, which candidate did he pick to succeed him, the executive who was always successful without bothering him and taking his time, or the one who continually seemed to seek his help and approval?”
Many hands shot up, including my own. Drucker called on several students. Each stated his opinion that the president picked the executive who was able to succeed on his own without having to report back until the job was done unless there was a specific problem. This was my opinion too. Our thinking was that the new president would need to operate on his own and would not have the old president’s counsel to fall back on.
Peter than asked for a show of hands as to how many agreed that the president selected the executive who demonstrated that he was able to operate independently and without the president’s ongoing approval. A large majority agreed with the students Peter had previously called on. Only a few thought that the second executive who constantly bothered the former president had been selected.
Peter than stated the results: “Most of you are wrong. The former president selected the candidate who continually consulted with him.” The class was in an uproar. This went against everything we knew about management and leadership. Everyone knew that the candidate who demonstrated that he could make decisions on his own should and would be selected.
What Everyone Knows is Frequently Wrong
Drucker responded: “What everybody ‘knows’ is frequently wrong. We are dealing with human beings. Most top managers want to feel that their policies and legacies will be continued. The constant contact and interaction with the second manager gave the president that confidence. Both executives were outstanding, but while the president felt that he knew and understood the executive who maintained contact, he was less certain about the other executive. As he should have after picking candidates based on accomplishment, he went with his gut instinct, a perfectly correct way in which to make such an important decision after considering all the facts. Unless the president’s preferred style was to let those who reported to him operate independently, the first executive should have tried to adapt his preferred method to that his boss preferred, even though “everyone knows” that continual consultation with a higher manager is less desirable.
Drucker was right, and I should have known better. I was in the process of losing the confidence of my then boss by behaving exactly like the executive who operated independently. That in itself is an important lesson, but that what everyone knows is frequently wrong proved even more important to me, and I think many other of Drucker’s students. Over the next few years, I heard Peter say this quite a few times.
Maybe through repetition I finally began to think more deeply about what the words really meant. This seemingly simple and self-contradicting statement is amazingly true and immensely valuable, and not only in business. What Drucker wanted to emphasize was that we must always question our assumptions no matter from where they originate. This is especially true regarding anything that a majority of people “know” or assume without questioning. This “knowledge” should always be suspect and needs to be examined much closer, because in a surprisingly high percentage of cases, the information “known to be true” will turn out to be false or inaccurate, if not generally, than in a specific instance. This can lead to extremely poor, even disastrous management decisions.
The Book, A Class with Drucker
In A Class with Drucker I brought together Drucker’s concepts which I thought were omitted or were not sufficiently emphasized in his published writings. I categorized these ideas into 19 chapters. After setting the stage and explaining the circumstances of how Peter happened to impart a particular lesson, I tried to quote him as to exactly what he told us as best I could remember. Writing this book was one of the happiest writing experiences I’ve ever had as re-examining old notes and his comments on my paper such as “Too glib!” or “Now I’m really confused,” were heart warming and took me back thirty years. Peter’s passing in November of 2005 was a great loss, but his contributions will live forever.
William A. Cohen, PhD, Major General, USAFR, Ret.
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So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work. – Peter F. Drucker
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