Reclaiming Drucker: The World's Most Famous Management Writer May Have Spent Most of His Working Life in the US, but He Owes Many of His Ideas to His European Origins

By Starbuck, Peter | European Business Forum, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Reclaiming Drucker: The World's Most Famous Management Writer May Have Spent Most of His Working Life in the US, but He Owes Many of His Ideas to His European Origins


Starbuck, Peter, European Business Forum


Peter Drucker has been described as the world's greatest management thinker, and he certainly remains one of the most popular. Now in his 96th year and living in Claremont, California, he has spent most of his working life in the US. Yet he remains proud of his European origins. The influence of the European milieu in which he was born, educated and spent his early working life is very strong in his work. Associated in most minds with US management ideas, Drucker is also the most European of management gurus.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Drucker was born into a Viennese intellectual family on November 19,1909. Five years later Austria-Hungary entered World War 1, a conflict which resulted in defeat, the loss of empire and then economic crisis and hyper-inflation. Despite the disruption of these events, Drucker was well educated and exposed to the ideas of the outstanding Austrian intellectuals of his day; he later named Sigmund Freud, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek as early influences, as well as composers and writers like Brahms and Mann. All of these events and influences had the effect of broadening Drucker's mind, and from an early age he developed an open method of enquiry, challenging himself to go beyond the obvious. Here he was influenced particularly by the boundaryless search techniques of Gestalt holistic analysis, developed by the Czech 1 philosopher Max Wertheimer.

The formative years

Drucker left Vienna in 1927, at the age of 18, to begin work as an

apprentice clerk in a Hamburg export business. He also enrolled in the law faculty of Hamburg University. During this time, three more influences on Drucker's later thought can be identified. The first was the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, who impressed Drucker with his commitment to work. Verdi's most difficult composition, Falstaff, was not completed until the composer was 80 years old, and Drucker pledged to follow this example by continuing to work and improve his ideas throughout his life.

The second influence from the Hamburg period was Drucker's encounter with the work of the Danish theologian, S0ren Kierkegaard. Drucker later wrote that it was through Kierkegaard that he discovered God. More specifically, it was Kierkegaard's somewhat severe Protestant message that later became the foundation for Drucker's imperative messages of integrity and the need for a functioning free market economy to provide its members with freedom, status and function. Finally, while on a visit home to Vienna for Christmas in 1927, Drucker met the Austrian philosopher and economist Karl Polanyi. Drucker later recalled that from Polanyi he learned the ability to admire people for the quality of their thought processes, even while disagreeing with their conclusions.

After 18 months in Hamburg, Drucker moved to Frankfurt, where he enrolled at the university and joined the editorial staff of Frankfurt's largest daily newspaper, the Frankfurter General Anzeiger. During his first year with the newspaper, in 1928, Drucker met two people who would go on to become major influences, one negative and the other positive. The negative influence was the leader of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler, then in opposition but already a formidable political force. Drucker did not believe that Hitler was entirely irrational, and he did note that Hitler's later nationalisation of the German banks had saved them from collapse. But he perceived the threat of Nazi totalitarianism at an early date, and his writings against Hitler would have consequences for himself.

The other influential figure in Drucker's life from 1928 was the Czech economist Joseph Schumpeter, a family friend and former colleague of Drucker's father, the economist Adolph Drucker. Such was Schumpeter's impact upon Drucker's ideas that the latter has sometimes been described as Schumpeter's successor. Drucker has never objected to this description, and he continues to acknowledge and praise Schumpeter.

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