Drucker: The Guru's Guru

By Micklethwait, John; Wooldridge, Adrian | The McKinsey Quarterly, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Drucker: The Guru's Guru


Micklethwait, John, Wooldridge, Adrian, The McKinsey Quarterly


Decentralization, privatization, empowerment, knowledge worker, MBO, flat organizations - he comed them all.

Required reading at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration. Drucker also inspires the Reverend Bill Hybels.

A "management utopian." Perhaps, but there are worse sorts of dreamers.

In most areas of intellectual life nobody can quite decide who is top dog - sometimes because rival schools of thought have rival champions, sometimes because there are so many fine specimens from which to choose. In the world of management gurus, however, there is no debate. Peter Drucker is the one guru to whom other gurus kowtow. He is also one of the few thinkers from any discipline who can reasonably claim to have changed the world: as the inventor of privatization, the apostle of a new class of knowledge workers, and the champion of management as a serious intellectual discipline. One South Korean businessman has even gone so far as to adopt Drucker as his first name in deference to the great man. This is perhaps a little extreme, even sad, but Drucker is the management theorist whom every reasonably well-educated person, however contemptuous of business or infuriated by jargon, really ought to read.

This unrivalled position has a lot to do with age and industry. Now in his late eighties, Drucker was a leading management pundit when today's management pundits were reengineering their train sets. Since discovering the discipline in the 1940s, he has produced an astonishing quantity of work: 26 books, thousands of articles, tens of thousands of lectures, and goodness knows how much practical advice for managers. Not all has stood the test of time, and some of Drucker's later work is thin, padded out with immodest references to earlier publications. Yet what makes all this effort worthwhile is the sheer quality of his intellect. No matter how many blind alleys he heads up, his relentlessly curious mind always makes the reader think. Drucker will say that he hates the word guru, thinking it synonymous with charlatan. But, in truth, he is the one management thinker who genuinely deserves the accolade.

The road to Drucker

According to Tom Peters, "no true discipline of management" existed before Drucker. Yet it has become fashionable to trace almost any modern management idea back to the "pioneers and prophets" of the early twentieth century - and sometimes even further back. For the modern reader (let alone the modern manager), the academic squabbles over who first said what are of limited interest. Even if Cato's list of job descriptions for provincial administrators in the Roman empire is a distant ancestor of Charles Handy's theories about the workplace 2,000 years later, the logical response of every sane modern manager should be: "So what?"

Drucker, thanks in part to his own talents and in part to the era in which he began to write about management, is the first management thinker consistently to pass this relevance test. Like his Biblical namesake, he is the rock upon which the current church is founded. It is legitimate, nonetheless, to take a little time to listen to the voices crying in the wilderness who preceded him.

Management, in one sense, is as old as man. Drucker himself has pointed out that "all the great business builders - from the Medici of Renaissance Florence and the founders of the Bank of England in the late seventeenth century down to IBM's Thomas Watson in our day - had a clear theory of the business which informed all their actions and decisions." One history of management has traced the craft back to the Sumerians in 5000 BC.(1) Organizing either the construction of the Pyramids or Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain must have called upon basic skills and talents that we might describe as management.

Many would say that Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was the first western management theorist. The Financial Times of London once dubbed his work The Prince the sixteenth-century equivalent of Dale Carnegie's How to Make Friends and Influence People. …

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