We’re Overdue for a Drucker Revival

By J.F. McKenna

From city hall to The Beltway, public-sector executives lament necessary budget cuts.

“Woe is us!” they cry while wringing their hands like well-smitten characters of the Old Testament. “What are we to do? Where are we to start?”

May I make a suggestion to those beleaguered public servants? Take your guidance from a legendary management genius — Peter Drucker.

Back in 1994, Drucker wrote that there is “no better way to improve an organization’s performance than to measure the results of capital appropriations against the promises and expectations that led to their authorization.”

Simple, direct and effective counsel.

As Drucker told Harvard Business Review readers, “how much better off the United States would be today had such feedback on government programs been standard practice for the past 50 years.”

True then, true now.

Today’s government executives should apply Drucker’s yardstick. Let them evaluate if that stimulus appropriation is indeed deserving of renewal. Or if a particular spending program has yet to meet its goal of utopian bliss.

Frankly speaking, both the private and the public sector could benefit from a revival of Drucker’s ideas.

Peter Drucker, who died in 2005, is still revered as the father of modern management. The author of dozens of classic texts, Drucker was “a true genius,” says William A. Cohen, author of A Class with Drucker.

Drucker changed the world, Cohen writes, “with his unique way of looking at things, his gift for cutting right to the heart of the matter, his insights and his ability to articulate truths that most of us did not readily see….”

I first got to know and appreciate Drucker in my early days as a business journalist. In 1998 my editor and mentor, Stan Modic, reminded me that the Viennese-born polymath had “invented the word management.” In 2000, I worked with Modic on a special magazine issue titled “Manufacturing in the New Millennium.” Modic asked Drucker contributed to the issue, and the good professor obliged.

In that issue, Drucker insisted that “a change leader sees change as opportunity. A change leader looks for change, knows how to find the right changes, and knows how to make them effective both outside the organization and inside it.” After Drucker’s death at 95, our magazine reminded readers that Drucker had left “a legacy of ideas that helped to underpin leadership from the production floor to the executive suite.”

It’s not to late to implement many of those ideas. Are you listening, Mr. Mayor, Mr. Governor and Mr. CEO?

America in general should take heed.

Drucker’s greatest ideas are compiled in The Effective Executive. Though Drucker wrote a broad shelf’s worth of books, including fiction, The Effective Executive remains his seminal contribution. No matter what position you hold, you cannot help but benefit from the short text whose subtitle tells it all — The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done.

From the start, Drucker makes it clear where he plans to take his reader. “The subject of this book,” he writes, “is managing oneself for effectiveness. That one can truly manage other people is by no means adequately proven. But one can always manage oneself.”

Writing to the “knowledge worker” — a category that fits just about anyone in 21st century America — Drucker makes clear that getting things done efficiently is not the same things as getting the right things done. Moreover, he dispels any idea that there is a natural-born executive type. Instead, he asserts that effectiveness — the ability to be “responsible for actions and decisions which are meant to contribute to the performance capacity of his organization” — is a habit, “that is, a complex of practices. And practices can always be learned.”

With that concept firmly established, Drucker expands on the five “habits of the mind” that all people must acquire:

  • Knowing where their time goes.
  • Focusing on outward contribution.
  • Building on strengths — their own and others.
  • Concentrating “on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results.”
  • Making effective, fundamental decisions.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, himself a public man with a broad intellectual grasp, has often praised this Drucker book as the one that changed his life. He has encouraged people to read The Effective Executive and then take it up once a year for at least five years. That is sound advice.

”Drucker, like Adam Smith, is essentially a philosopher of reality,” Gingrich wrote in Inc. magazine in 1998. “He looks at what is really happening in the market in economic, historical, and political terms, and then he makes sense of it all. Drucker’s work is about far more than management or the production of wealth. It is about the process by which people lead productive and useful lives and produce greater opportunities and greater resources for themselves and their fellow man.”

Interestingly enough, Drucker is enjoying a cult revival in Japan because of a recently published novel that melds baseball and his management ideas.

Since America is definitely “low on runs,” businessmen and politicians might take note.

Actually, we all should.

J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications consultant. While at Industry Week magazine, he coined the expression “Total Quality Government” and co-chaired a series of national conferences on quality in the public sector.

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