Drucker on Leadership

Just about anyone who reads this book will have read or been affected by the writings of Peter Drucker. He is the author of more than 35 books, many of them groundbreaking, including “The End of Economic Man” (1939), “Concept of the Corporation” (1946), “The Age of Discontinuity” (1969) and “Management Challenges for the 21st Century” (1999).

He was the first to articulate countless fundamental business concepts such as decentralization, management by objective and the rise of the “knowledge worker,” a phrase he coined in 1969. Drucker has been called, with justification, “the father of modern management” and “the guru’s guru.” But, as far-reaching as his inquiries were, he never expounded a theory or wrote a book about leadership.

Throughout much of his career, Drucker seemed to have little use for the concept of leadership. His concern was management. “Management is leadership,” he wrote in Harper’s in 1947. “Leadership cannot be taught or learned.” He was sceptical of the notion that there were specific qualities that defined leadership and if there were such qualities, he questioned whether they were worthy of emulation. As an Austrian born Jew who saw the disastrous effect of Hitler’s aura, Drucker especially distrusted charisma, which he thought could too easily be used to manipulate and as an instrument of what he called “misleadership.”

Although strands of that philosophy remained woven into his writings throughout his career, Drucker did conclude in his later years that leadership was a capability distinct from management and that it could be learned. While he did not address leadership, per se, at length and never concisely defined the role, it can be argued that Drucker wrote incessantly on the subject and had a coherent concept of leadership. That is the premise of “Drucker on Leadership: New Lessons from the Father of Modern Management,” and in it author William A. Cohen attempts to provide the orderly exposition on the topic that Drucker never did.

Cohen is well qualified for the job. He knew Drucker for 30 years, first as his student, then as his colleague and collaborator. He is also an accomplished executive, teacher, lecturer and author in his own right. Cohen draws on Drucker’s extensive writings, speeches, lectures, presentations and even personal conversations to tease out a unified philosophy of leadership attributable to Drucker. To make the theory hold together, Cohen infers a good deal of connective tissue, for instance, by inventing a methodology for developing strategy that he assigns to Drucker. Despite taking such license, Cohen remains faithful to the spirit of Drucker’s thinking and teaching.

Five Major Themes

Cohen distilled from Drucker’s work five insights that form the basis for his philosophy of leadership:

1. The leader’s main work is strategy. “The difference between a manager and a leader is that a manager focuses on doing things right, while a leader focuses on doing the right things,” said Drucker. Figuring out the right things is the goal of strategy and devising strategy is a full-time job that should never be delegated to committees, according to Drucker.

2. Abiding by business ethics and maintaining personal integrity are prerequisites for leadership. It is clear from his earliest writings that Drucker believed that leadership was established through character and that personal values should not be fenced off from business practices. Employees may forgive a leader for many things, but if his integrity lapses, he quickly loses his claim to leadership, Drucker said.

3. The military offers the best lessons in leadership development. Drucker admired the military as a model for developing business leadership. He believed that its emphasis on applied and practical training, early and continual talent development and evaluation, follow-through and a rational system of promotion were highly effective. Drucker frequently said, “The army trains and develops more leaders than do all other institutions put together — and with a lower casualty rate.”

4. Effective leadership depends upon knowing what motivates people. Drucker spent a good deal of time pondering the motivational levers of leadership. He felt that allowing employees to be self-directed and giving them responsibility — so-called Theory Y leadership — had merit. But, he said it could never work without the imposition of some authority and the provision of guidance. He thought that making employee satisfaction a primary objective was a recipe for mediocrity. In later years, as he increasingly focused on the nonprofit sector, he came to believe that what motivated volunteers was similar to what motivated employees: the desire to gain experience and competency, to feel effective, to achieve balance, to be part of a social network and to give something back.

5. Leadership is really marketing. Late in his career, Drucker began to explore the notion that workers — especially knowledge workers — are like customers or partners. It is the organization’s job to figure out what they want and need and then satisfy those requirements, he suggested. Leadership, according to this notion, becomes a marketing job. When a leader is doing her job, motivation is organic; neither customers nor employees need to be sold. Drucker seems never to have resolved his ambivalence about the nature of leadership and as a result “Drucker on Leadership” contains many inconsistencies. But, Drucker’s deliberations on the subject, deftly described in this book, enrich ongoing debates about the substance and value of leadership.