Unquestionably, one of the key management thinkers of the 20th century (something that can be said with more confidence now than it could have been stated just a few months ago) is Peter Drucker, the author of a vast array of books since his first was published in 1933. That Drucker has been ahead of the prevailing wisdom is made evident, for example, by the time of one of his books: The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society. While that title would be sound if the book appeared in print just last week, it was published more than 30 years ago, in 1968. Drucker knew what was going on before most people were aware that something was happening.
John E. Flaherty has long been a student (and friend) of Drucker. To help provide people with a synthesis of Drucker’s voluminous output, he has written Peter Drucker: Shaping the Managerial Mind (Jossey-Bass; $27.00). To be sure, this is Flaherty on Drucker, not the unalloyed material, but Flaherty provides a solid understanding of Drucker’s intellectual and observational development throughout the better part of the 20th century.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is not, say, what Drucker discovered while writing Concept of the Corporation (1946), a ground-breaking book that examines a single corporation. Drucker had looked long and hard for a major corporation that would open itself up to analytical study (and that would provide financial support). General Motors came through. Flaherty writes, “He had no interest in General Motors in particular or the automobile industry in general; his ulterior goal was to use the company as a means to understand the conflict between industrial efficiency and social harmony. For example, his major concern was with the dignity and status of the individual employee and the role of the corporation in satisfying this end of industrial citizenship and social community.” Once again, here is an example of Drucker dealing with concepts that are still unresolved issues today. As it turned out, not surprisingly, “Despite the fact that Concept of the Corporation was widely considered a probusiness book, it received a hostile reception from its financial patron. It was resoundingly criticized within the organization for portraying as vulnerabilities what GM considered strengths. Considering the book unfair in its criticism and decidedly antibusiness in tone, the company’s official policy was to treat its publication as a nonevent—ignoring its accompanying publicity, prohibiting its purchase as a gift for suppliers, dissociating the company from its opinions, and censoring any internal or external discussion of its merits.” Sound familiar?
Although anyone can learn a lot about management thinking from the book, there is, perhaps, a more important lesson. Throughout his career, Drucker has been a journalist, political scientist, economist, statistician, historian, business consultant, and teacher. Drucker has spent his life being curious about an array of things, learning about them, thinking about them. Far too many of us spend our time concentrating on one thing: we give up breadth for depth. But depth without context is sometimes nothing more than a deep hole and there isn’t usually a whole lot down there.—GSV