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Farewell to modern management's father

February 1, 2006
by Monica E. Oss
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“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.—Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker left this earth in November at age 95. If I look back on my development—both personal and professional—Drucker is among a handful of people who have had the most influence on my thinking. Drucker was not afraid to challenge orthodoxy, and he looked beyond his role as a business consultant and business school faculty member, referring to his work as that of a “social ecologist.”

Born in Vienna, Austria, Drucker often was called the “father of modern management.” A former newspaperman (whose work was banned by the Nazis), he did not think up economic theories or elaborate business operation systems but rather watched people working, put behavior into historical context, and saw a new liberal art—management.

“The overseer of the unskilled peasants who dragged stone for the pyramids did not concern himself with morale or motivation,” Drucker wrote. But modern management is different, he said. “Its task is to make people capable of joint performance, to make their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.”

Drucker's greatest impact came from his writing. He wrote more than 30 books and thousands of articles, including a monthly op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal from 1975 to 1995. His first book (The End of Economic Man, 1939) was intended to strengthen the free world's will to fight fascism.

In an era in which our leaders are “pro-business,” “pro-government,” or “anti-for-profit,” Drucker defied conventional wisdom. He saw the importance of the respective roles of government, private business entities, and nonprofit organizations. Drucker likened the society of organizations to an orchestra: “Each institution has to do its own work the way each instrument in an orchestra plays only its own part. But there is also the score, the community. And only if each individual instrument contributes to the score is there music.”

Drucker supported government regulation over areas such as food, drugs, and finance. Indeed, he argued that the rise of global businesses required stronger governments and stronger social institutions, including more powerful unions, to keep businesses from forgetting social interests. But he advocated for privatization of many current government functions.

Drucker believed the economy could stimulate innovation by permitting new ventures to charge the government for the cost of regulations and paperwork. He supported the legalization of drugs. He encouraged businesses and nonprofits to organize in ways he felt would promote human dignity and vaccinate society against political and economic chaos. He believed corporations should make money—but also believed that managers’ moral action could make that happen. He believed in management's focus on organizational profitability—and saw the power of private-sector profitability to create full employment in the United States. He foresaw the rise of the “knowledge worker” and the need for management styles to change to embrace team members’ creativity and intellectual contributions.

Later in his career, Drucker became interested in what he called “the social sector,” nonprofit organizations and their complementary role in the country's economic fabric. He was among the first management consultants to encourage nonprofit organizations to think like businesses—even though their bottom line was “changed lives” rather than profits. He also was an early voice in predicting that donors to nonprofits increasingly would judge organizations on results rather than intentions. This led Frances Hesselbein, the former national director of the Girl Scouts, to help create the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management (now The Leader to Leader Institute).

A product of the evolution of his professional life in Hitler's Germany, Drucker believed that the world's managers are true heroes. The developed world had recovered from repeated catastrophes because “ordinary people, people running the everyday concerns of business and institutions, took responsibility and kept on building for tomorrow while around them the world came crashing down,” he wrote in 1986 in The Frontiers of Management. In times when we see great economic and political uncertainty, perhaps our focus on the future (in the face of the unknown) is Drucker's great legacy. I'll miss Drucker's wit and wisdom, although I am comforted by my large library of his works.

In an interview toward the end of his life, Drucker was asked if there was anything he wished he had done but had not yet accomplished. His answer was “quite a few things,” among which was writing a book entitled Managing Ignorance. Sounds like a good project for me….

Monica E. Oss, Editor Emeritus of Behavioral Healthcare, is CEO of OPEN MINDS, a research and management consulting firm for the behavioral health and social services field.