A figure walks onstage to accept an award for a lifetime of achievement. Eight thousand people jump to their feet and fill the vast hall with noisy tribute. A swarm of fans rush the stage with cameras. The noise rolls on and on and finally fades like summer thunder.
No, the furor wasn't for Tom Cruise or any rock star. This celebrity is Peter Drucker, leading candidate for being the most influential observer in modern business history. At 89, Drucker is a living icon for generations of managers and their teachers. An awestruck young spectator says, "I feel like I've just seen Elvis."
That a man of ideas - a writer, teacher, and mentor-would excite so much admiration gives one hope for the state of heroism in our time. It's not just that he has published 30 books and mentored some of the most famous business leaders in the world, or that his ideas permeate the practice of modern management around the globe. It's that it all adds up to such sustained accomplishment. In an age of evanescent fame and fleeting brilliance, Drucker is a genuine, made-to-last hero.
Though he walks with the help of a cane, sensibly tagged with his return address, and must deal with the inconvenience of tuning a pair of hearing aids, Drucker has the lively mien of a younger man. White, wispy hair rises off a high forehead as if charged by the mental energy within. He has the courtly demeanor of his upbringing in pre-World War I Austria, but it's layered over with a sense of humor and a frankness that is quite American. He understands American culture so well that Henry Luce hired him to complete Fortune magazine's 10th-anniversary issue. English is the language Drucker writes in, teaches in, and probably thinks in, but he still speaks it with some indelible German consonants. "Ve sneak out," he said as he and his wife were leaving a reception a bit early.
He is a romantic who insists on kissing his wife goodbye before she heads out on an errand, and yet he can be feisty and gruff in defense of a cherished idea, marshaling such phrases as "I insist" and "I forbid."
It's Drucker's writing that reveals his genius, not just for observation and insight, but also for clear and original thinking beautifully expressed. He is to management what Steven Jay Gould is to natural science, Isaac Asimov to astronomy, and John McPhee to geology.
Drucker is also a life-long teacher, first at Sarah Lawrence, then at Bennington, and for the past 20 years at the Claremont Graduate School. His model for teaching, according to a chapter in his autobiographical Adventures of a Bystander, was a pair of spinster sisters who ran a small school for young children in Austria before World War I. Miss Elsa, clad in shiny black bombazine and high-button shoes, and Miss Sophy, draped in pastel chiffon scarves, taught the boy Peter the essence of good teaching: to give sparing but deserved praise and ask challenging questions. That he never mastered legible handwriting nor the manufacture of a three-legged milking stool did not prevent the precocious Drucker from being promoted early to secondary school or from being "incurably infected" to teach. In 50-some years of teaching humanities, social sciences, religion, philosophy, literature, history, government, management, economics, and statistics he has "not found a subject yet that is not sparkling with interest." Miss Sophy gave him "respect for the task" and Miss Elsa "a work discipline and the knowledge of how one organizes for performance."
Drucker claims to have happened onto his role as the fountainhead of the discipline of management by sheerest serendipity. "This was largely luck; I happened to be there first." That, of course, overlooks the fact that in 1943, he saw the catalytic ideas in the management practices of General Motors - the only company that would permit him to observe upclose - and that he translated those insights into one of the most popular and seminal management books of all time, Concept of a Corporation. …