The Man Who Redefined Management

A new documentary about Peter Drucker shows how he has had more impact on business than other any writer in the 20th century

By John A. Byrne

After reviewing the script for a documentary on himself, management guru Peter Drucker typed a note to the producer, Ken Witty. In typical Drucker fashion, it was succinct, pithy, and right on target. "My only comment," he wrote, "is that I miss any criticism, any mention of limitations, shortcomings, or failures. This, bluntly, greatly weakens the presentation's credibility."

How very Peter Drucker. As usual, he's right -– to a point. Peter Drucker: An Intellectual Journey, is clearly told from the perspective of an admiring fan. But the one-hour documentary -- airing on CNBC-TV Dec. 24 and rebroadcast several times over the holiday period -– is nevertheless a well-done rendering of the life of the great management thinker. And Witty is not alone in heaping praise on his subject (for a Q&A with Witty, see "Peter Drucker's Search for Community").

Procter & Gamble (PG ) Chairman Alan Lafley says, "When you think about Peter, he's sort of like the Babe Ruth and Ted Williams [of management] because of his longevity, his high standards, his sustained excellence, and his insights into the practice of management." And there's Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric (GE ), who says, "Management around the world owes a debt of gratitude to someone who devoted his life to clarifying the role of people, the role of an organization in our society."


  Indeed, it was a pair of difficult questions Drucker poses to managers that led to Welch's fundamental early strategy at GE. Drucker asked, "If you weren't already in the business, would you enter it today?" If the answer is no, "What are you going to do about it?" Welch translated that into a declaration that if a GE business was not No. 1 or No. 2 in its industry, it should be fixed, sold, or closed.

Smart ideas, clever insight, and pragmatic philosophy distinguish Drucker, who turned 93 in November, as the most enduring and influential management guru in history. His first book, The End of Economic Man, published in 1939, was favorably reviewed by Winston Churchill. Drucker's latest book, Managing in the Next Society, published this year, is his 35th. As Witty so correctly points out, "As Columbus discovered America, Drucker discovered management."

Drucker was the first to acknowledge that workers should be treated as a resource, not a cost. He was the first to make clear that there is "no business without a customer," a simple notion that ushered in a new approach to marketing. Drucker created the notion of management by objectives. And the questions Drucker asked led several generations of executives, such as Welch, to better lead their organizations and set viable strategy.


  Given Drucker's remarkable achievements, it's surprising that no one has already made a documentary about him. Witty, whose TV credits include work with CBS News and The MacNeil-Lehrer Report, does a very good job answering all the key questions about this true Renaissance man. He takes us to Drucker's birthplace, Vienna, and traces the early intellectual development of a great mind. Drucker's father was a high civil servant in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his mother was a medical specialist. They invited into their home some of the foremost intellectuals, politicians, musicians, and scientists of the day for evenings of focused conversation. The young Peter absorbed much of what they had to say.

At the age of 18, Drucker trekked to Germany to become a journalist at a large Frankfurt daily. As a young journalist, he opposed the Nazis, understanding the threat that Hitler posed. "I can claim to have been one of the very first ones who saw Hitler as a real danger," Drucker tells Witty. "I was simply scared. I had read Mein Kampf, which no educated person was willing to read. I realized that Hitler meant every word of it."

Soon after Hitler became German Chancellor, Drucker fled to become an investment banker in London. He arrived in the U.S. in 1937, just as the winds of war were blowing ever fiercely, and he became the first to study a giant corporation –- General Motors (GM ) -- from the inside. The assignment, which resulted in the landmark 1945 book, The Concept of the Corporation, launched his career as a consultant and management thinker.


  Witty discovers that Drucker's journey through life is largely a quest to find and cultivate a sense of community. After studying GM, Drucker came to believe that corporations were the best organizations to help foster community. He came to think otherwise in the 1980s, as chief executives were paid kings' ransoms for routinely laying off hundreds of thousands of employees. Drucker then turned to the social sector, seeing in the Salvation Army, the Girls Scouts of America, and the megachurches the greatest promise for realizing true community.

Of all the on-camera interviews, Jack Beatty, former editor of The Atlantic and author of a book on Drucker, speaks the most eloquently about Drucker's contributions. Beatty rightly contends that no writer has had more influence on the lives of human beings in the last century. "He saw management as the application of mind to work," remarks Beatty, "and this person, the manager, becomes for him a kind of culture hero."

Regardless of Drucker's own criticism of the piece as too positive, Peter Drucker: An Intellectual Journey is a terrific introduction to a great mind and a great man.

Byrne is a senior writer for

in New York

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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