Guru Grab-Bag


By Peter F. Drucker

HarperBusiness -- 358pp -- $30

Poor Paul McCartney. The former Beatle hadn't had a hit record in almost 20 years. Meantime, singers young enough to be his grandchildren were churning out chart-toppers one after another. So he gathered up his singles from the 1970s into a greatest hits album, and--voilá!--he was rocking again.

If an aging pop star can cash in by recycling old material, why shouldn't Peter F. Drucker? The nonagenarian dean of management advice has just published his 30th book, The Essential Drucker. It, too, is a "best-of" compilation: 26 chapters clipped from earlier titles released from 1954 to 1999. Drucker's hope, he writes in a brief introduction, is to answer questions he gets asked again and again: "Where do I start to read your books? Which of your writings are essential?"

Some chapters, indeed, are essential. Drucker is often dead-on in the book's middle section, in which he writes about how managers can be effective. "Effectiveness is a habit; that is, a complex of practices," he informs. "And practices can always be learned." Maybe you'll never be Mozart, he adds, but anybody can play scales well with enough practice.

Drucker can be refreshingly blunt, too. Writing about getting new ideas successfully to market, he says: "Innovations have to be handled by ordinary human beings, and if they are to attain any size and importance at all, by morons and near-morons." His breadth of knowledge is dazzling. While urging managers not to micromanage, Drucker cites a 2,000-year-old Roman legal adage: "The magistrate does not consider trifles." He quotes Socrates, Eisenhower, and Edison--and somehow, it works.

Mostly, however, The Essential Drucker is as dated as McCartney's Silly Love Songs. In a chapter first published in 1974, he writes of the importance of knowing your customers and highlights two companies to emulate: Sears, Roebuck & Co. (S ) and, as he puts it, "the Telephone Company." Try telling that to shareholders of Sears and AT&T (T ) today. He gives Sears a pat on the back for its marketing savvy in other chapters, too.

The compilation is also quite repetitious. In two places--just 13 pages apart--he tells the same story about General Motors Co. (GM ) essentially inventing the "keiretsu" model in the 1920s, long before the Japanese made this construct famous around the world. He also reflects twice on "two different types of compromise": In both examples, half a loaf of bread is better than none, while halving a baby leaves "a corpse in two pieces" on one page and "a corpse and a chunk of meat" on the other.

Other times, Drucker's observations seem entirely off-base. In a rant against the government, for example, he tells readers: "In every developed country, society is becoming sicker rather than healthier." How then does he explain today's longer life spans or falling crime rates? He also writes that central cities are dead and, when it comes to business, small is beautiful. "We have moved away from the worship of size," he informs. Guess Drucker should pass that last nugget on to Jack Welch or the brass at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT )

Perhaps those who read The Essential Drucker will be inspired to pick up his previous books and learn from the master. With this unoriginal cut-and-paste job, though, the risk is that they may not bother.

By Michael Arndt

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