Peter Drucker's Search for Community

Documentarian Ken Witty talks about the management guru's philosophy, his life's work, and his often unappreciated influence

Producer and writer Ken Witty has spent more than a year putting together a documentary called Peter Drucker: An Intellectual Journey. Witty's take on the management guru, whom he regards as one of the great men of the last 100 years, will be broadcast on CNBC Dec. 24 and 25. It's scheduled to be shown again on Dec. 28, as well as on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.

Witty has been producing documentaries and public-affairs shows for nearly three decades for CBS News, The MacNeil-Lehrer Report, Adam Smith's Money World, and other programs. In this interview with BusinessWeek Senior Writer John A. Byrne, Witty speaks about his experience in creating the documentary. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: Why Peter Drucker?


Peter is the least known and the most underappreciated great man of the 20th century. He's a hero to people who are in business and have faced managerial problems. They've read his articles and learned about him in business school, but he's not a household name. Yet this writer has probably had more influence on more people than any other writer in the latter half of the 20th century.

Q: Peter recently turned 93 years old. Why produce a documentary on him now?


I've worked with him over the years, and it suddenly occurred to me that no one had ever done a documentary on Peter Drucker. I got to know him through his work with nonprofits, which has been his major activity in the last 15 years. He was turning 90 when I started thinking about this. It was now or never if he was going to be a participant.

I spent about 10 hours over four sessions with him last December and January. After an hour and a half, I would think he had had enough. But he would always say, "No, no, let's continue." He would tire me out.

Q: What did you learn from your interviews with Peter and the people he's worked with?


He brings a communitarian philosophy to his consulting. That was something I really never heard about until Peter emphasized it in our interviews. He said that what he's all about is this search for community, the search for where people and organizations find community for noneconomic satisfaction.

This is because of his experience in the aftermath of the first World War, when all the traditional institutions of the Austro-Hungarian empire fell apart and were replaced by fascism and communism, which he opposed.

He comes to the U.S. and thinks he sees real community in the corporate world. When Peter goes into General Motors in 1943 to study the company, there was this enormous worker solidarity. There are all these women who weren't there before or after the war, but while Peter was there, they were making tanks and Jeeps for the war effort.

Peter sees this great communal spirit and then talks with GM executives about creating a safety net for these workers. His sense is that the worker is a resource, not a cost. In the '70s and '80s, he watches the corporation do away with these things. The concept of lifetime employment, for example, is completely abandoned, and Peter generally loses hope with the American corporation, except for a few special ones. Then he turns to the nonprofit sector for his real hope for community and human satisfaction.

Q: In the 1980s, he also was arguing that CEOs of public corporations were overpaid, and he advocated that they get no more than a relatively small multiple of the salary of the rank-and-file. Do you think these positions make him an anticapitalist in any way?


Yeah. I think he is. He still is a European social communitarian, more like one of the Christian Democratic politicians. He's cynical of big government, but he believes in having an underpinning [for] the workers, so they will be most productive.

Corporate America dismissed him when he talked about the importance of governance and leadership. Their real mission was the long-term survival of the corporation, and that meant balancing long-term success with short-term goals. He thought the corporation was sacrificing the long-term for short-term profits. Now the man is 93 years old, and it's interesting that the biggest issues confronting Corporate America are governance and clearing up the accounting.

Q: What are the essential Drucker teachings?


Treating workers well. To Peter, it all comes down to treating people well. I sent Peter the script, and he did some copy editing and he changed "well" to "right." Treating them well seems like being nice to them. Treating them right means releasing their energy so they can achieve their greatest performance. The worker is not a cost, but a resource.

Another big thing is looking outside your organization. Every organization is so ingrown, and Peter keeps saying, "Look out there. Go and see what your competitor is doing. Stop being so insular." It sounds simple, but very few managers do that. [Joseph] Schumpeter -- on creative destruction -- may be most influential economist on him. Organized abandonment is what Peter calls it. The precondition for innovation is to kill stuff beforehand. If you don't, you won't be able to do the new thing.

Q: During the course of your creating the documentary was there an "ah-ha" moment when you felt you got the Drucker story?


In the opening of the documentary, he looks at the camera and says, "Don't waste any film on me." It's the true modesty of the man. In the late '40s and '50s, he was the consultant who was most in demand. He could have been the McKinsey & Co. of the century, a Drucker & Associates with thousands of consultants. But he chose to work alone, never having even a secretary. He said, "I'm the guru of organizations, yet I've never been part of any organization. I don't want to. I'm a loner."

Q: You spent a good deal of time with Peter. What's he like as a person?


He's a genuinely nice person. He's a gentleman of the old school who tries to relate to everyone in a very personal way. He wants to know about your children and what they do and who you are.

I went to a reunion in 2001 at the Drucker School of Management [at Claremont Graduate University in California]. All these former students showed up, some of whom graduated in 1971 -- 30 years of ex-students come to talk to Peter. He hugs them, and kisses the women, and inevitably knows them by their first names. He really keeps up with the students, and he does something else: He uses them as an intelligence system to find out what's going on out there. He's interested in ideas and other people, but not all that interested in delving into his inner self.

Q: What do you want viewers to take away from this?


I want them to know what a very special man this is. A lot of his ideas have become so accepted that it's hard for anyone to understand how original they were at the time he introduced them. It's sort of like Freud and psychoanalysis.

Peter was the first, for example, to help managers understand that they had to define their businesses from a customer's perspective. People defined it in terms of the products they produced, not the customers who bought the products.

His thinking has so filtered into the mainstream that it all seems so obvious today. At some point I said, "A lot of this stuff you do is just common sense." He said, "Yes, but common sense is oh so rare."

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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