Writing. This was the response given by Peter F. Drucker in 1992, when
asked: “To what have you dedicated your life?¨ “Since I was twenty,
writing has been the foundation of everything else I have been doing”.

Over the last 60 years, the father of management and the creator of modern
business theory wrote 37 books. Amongst them, oddly enough, are
two novels, The Last of All Possible Worlds (1980) and The Temptation to
Do Good
(1984). To these, you have to add dozens of articles for both
professional journals and newspapers. From 1975 to 1995, the 20-year period considered his most
prolific, he was an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal; he
wrote and edited 18 books and 8 articles for the Harvard Business
Review, and contributed to such publications as The Public Interest,
The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs,
and The Economist. The sales of his books run into the millions.

Drucker is most commonly thought of as a management theoretician, the
prophet of management par excellence.
Undoubtedly this is the best-known dimension of his work, but it
represents only a partial view
of his intellectual activity. He has shaped and
moulded our understanding of management, as well as other concepts
like human resources, decentralisation, efficiency, the knowledge
worker,
and management objectives. He anticipated important trends and
discontinuities such as
the characteristic features of post-modern society, the influence of
technological changes on enterprise and the workplace, the leading role
of innovation and entrepreneurship, the crisis of economic reductionism
and the collapse of Marxist totalitarianism.

Drucker’s secret
“But when people then ask: ‘What are you writing about?’, I become
evasive. I have written quite a bit about economics but sure am not an
economist. I have written quite a bit about history but surely am not
an historian. I have written quite a bit about government and politics;
but though I started out as a political scientist I long ago moved out
of that field. And I am also not a sociologist as the term is now
defined. I myself, however, know very well—and have known for many
years—what I am trying to do. I consider myself a ‘social ecologist’
concerned with man’s man-made environment the way a natural ecologist
studies the biological environment.”

More than scientific analysis, Drucker’s talent was to be able to grasp
intuitively what was happening. He was a master of the art of seeing a
hidden meaning in what seemed obvious to others. “My greatest strength
as a consultant is to be ignorant and to ask questions,” he used to say.


Drucker’s early life

Peter Ferdinand Drucker was born in Vienna in 1909 in an cultured
family which fostered both his literary vocation and his restless
intellect. He combined law studies in Hamburg and Frankfurt with a job
in an export company and later as a journalist with the Frankfurter
General Anzeiger
. His doctoral thesis in law dealt with the forms of quasi-government (quasi-Regierungen) such as revolutionary
governments, governments in exile or colonies in the process of
becoming independent.

His first book was a study of Friedrich Julius Stahl, a mid-nineteenth
century legal philosopher and an outstanding political traditionalist
and parliamentarian in Berlin and Erfurt. Stahl had been ignored by
German historians of political thought, but Drucker’s penchant for the
innovative and creative syntheses of things otherwise deemed
incompatible would seem to account for his intellectual fascination
with the figure of Stahl, who could be described as the personification
of paradox.

After publishing his study of Stahl, he left Germany and established
himself in London, where he worked for a financial firm and attended
classes given by John Maynard Keynes. In 1937, he moved to the United
States to serve as a correspondent for several English and Scottish
newspapers and as an assessor for various British financial
institutions. Some years later, he would become a professor and
consultant, activities which alternated with his work as a
writer.


The father of American management

In 1941 he published The Future of Industrial Man, which predicted that
we were becoming a society of organisations and that the problems of
hierarchy, function and membership in these organisations, like those
to which they were related in government, would be the basic issues of
the second post-war period. The Future of Industrial Man was the first
book which recognised what is now almost taken for granted: that the
business organisation is a social organisation, a community, and at the
same time, an economic enterprise. This book also paved the way for
Drucker’s interest in the administration of institutions and led him to
undertake the study of management. It was also the book which, a few
years later, would move General Motors to propose that he analyse the
structure of their upper management and its policies.

A curious anecdote is appropriate here: before being called by General
Motors, Drucker proposed studies on other corporations, but his offers
were turned down. The president of Westinghouse thought that Drucker’s
vision, which spoke of autonomy, decentralisation and responsibility,
was a Viennese variety of Bolshevism.

In 1946 the powerful auto worker’s unions were fighting management, trying to regain ground lost during the war.
Drucker’s thesis was not acceptable to either side: not to management,
because it called for worker autonomy; nor to the unions, because it
demanded from employees responsibility and initiative in carrying out
their work (in other words, adopting at their level a managerial
outlook). From both sides he received much the same answer: “Managers
should manage and workers should work.”

However, Drucker was not discouraged and happily continued with his
ruminations, whether or not they were well received. He knew what he
wanted to say and said it, without fear or favour, in the coherence
which was a constant feature of his life.


The art of management

After reading hundreds of pages by Drucker on the subject of business
management and administration, I asked him a few years ago why none of
the studies made on his work, which are comparatively more numerous
than those dedicated to other outstanding contemporary authors, mention
his deep anthropological and philosophical convictions. His response
was that: “Because all of those who have written about me have
portrayed me as an author of business management and administration,
which I am not”.

In fact, Drucker, opportune et importune, pondered the great
anthropological questions. His thought rose above fashions and, to a
degree, the passing of time. His vital interest in and commitment to
these questions was shown in a brilliant essay on Kierkegaard (The
Unfashionable Kierkegaard
, 1949). A paragraph of that essay could be
the best end that the Peter Drucker’s fruitful life deserves: "My work
has been totally in society. But I knew at once, in those far-back days
of 1928, that my life would not and could not be totally in society,
that it would have to have an existential dimension that transcends
society… Faith is the belief that in God the impossible is possible,
that in Him time and eternity are one, that both life and death are
meaningful. Faith is the knowledge that man is creature— not
autonomous, not the master, not the end, not the centre— and yet
responsible and free. It is the acceptance of man’s essential
loneliness to be overcome by the certainty that God is always with man,
even ‘unto the hour of our death’.”

Guido Stein is an assistant professor of managing people in organizations at the IESE business school in Barcelona

Peter Drucker: recommended reading

Concept of the Corporation
356pp | Transaction | 1993 (1945)  | ISBN 1560006250

The Practice of Management
416 pp | Collins | 1993 (1954) | ISBN 0887306136

The Effective Executive Revised
192 pp | Collins | 2002 (1966)  | ISBN 0060516070

The New Realities
262pp | Transaction | 2003 (1989) | ISBN 0765805332