Management as a Liberal Art

I've had the opportunity to take part in several conferences and symposiums this summer revolving around topics at the center of Peter Drucker's teachings: innovation, marketing, service, and volunteering. But it's the gathering where I am now—surrounded by novelists and poets, instead of corporate executives and social entrepreneurs—that I believe Drucker would have relished the most.

Here, at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, amid the natural splendor of the California Sierra Nevada, Drucker would have felt truly at home. He considered himself a wordsmith first and foremost. And with 39 books to his name, who could argue? In addition to works such as The Practice of Management and The Effective Executive, Drucker authored two novels: The Last of All Possible Worlds and The Temptation to Do Good.

Yet he also would have loved this place, with its nightly readings of fiction and memoir and social history, because he believed that management, when done right, incorporates lessons from all of these disciplines and many more.

Action and ApplicationsManagement "deals with action and application; and its test is its results. This makes it a technology," Drucker explained in The New Realities. "But management also deals with people, their values, their growth and development—and this makes it a humanity…. Management is thus what tradition used to call a 'liberal art': 'liberal' because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; 'art' because it is practice and application.

"Managers," Drucker continued, "draw on all the knowledge and insights of the humanities and the social sciences—on psychology and philosophy, on economics and on history, on the physical sciences and on ethics."

That too many corporations and other institutions have lost sight of this is painfully obvious today. This is not to imply that if more CEOs and regulators had merely studied Aristotle's warnings about "the unlimited acquisition of wealth" or digested Dickens' Little Dorrit, the financial crisis or the Madoff scandal would have been averted. But pausing to consider such wisdom surely couldn't have hurt.

It's not that people have stopped writing; by one estimate, a new book of fiction is published in the U.S. every 30 minutes. It's not that people have stopped reading, either (though more and more are doing so online). The National Endowment of the Arts released a survey last January showing that for the first time in more than 25 years American adults are consuming more literature.

The Nitty-GrittyThe problem is that the broad world of ideas has become largely separated from the world of business.

"What Drucker wanted was for knowledge to "no longer be ornamental—to be consumed to refine oneself or to impress others," says Joseph Maciariello, the academic director at the Drucker Institute, which I run. Rather, knowledge is to be brought down to the grimy earth, where we all work, and integrated so that work can be made more productive and more humane."

Maciariello is spearheading an effort to bring the concept of "management as a liberal art" into the nation's colleges and universities. The goal is to have business professors integrate the humanities more fully into their classes, while liberal arts majors contemplate "not just applied reasoning and ethics but virtuous living," as Maciariello puts it, rooted in real results. Ultimately, the intention is for these ideals to transcend the academy and reach the realm of practice.

In the meantime, the creative souls at Squaw Valley have, unbeknownst to them, underscored a few things that all managers would profit from thinking about. For starters, there's the Community of Writers itself. Founded 40 years ago by novelists Blair Fuller and Oakley Hall, the organization is thriving, thanks in large measure to a strong sense of self. "Community" is not just a throwaway word in the name here, but the very essence of the place. The authors on staff, many of them highly acclaimed, are unfailingly unpretentious and nurturing of the young writers they teach.

"Any organization…needs a commitment to values and their constant reaffirmation, as a human body needs vitamins and minerals," Drucker wrote. "There has to be something 'this organization stands for,' or else it degenerates into disorganization, confusion, and paralysis."

Brilliance Is Not EnoughWhat has also been made clear at Squaw Valley this week is that work of value never comes easy. "I do not believe in genius," Dorothy Allison, the bestselling author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller, declared the other night. With that, she implored everyone trying to get his or her first book published to keep honing the manuscript—through 19 drafts, need be—until it's just right.

Managers could benefit from the same basic advice. "Brilliant men," Drucker noted, "are often strikingly ineffectual; they fail to realize that the brilliant insight is not by itself achievement. They never have learned that insights become effectiveness only through hard systematic work."

Finally, and most importantly, there are the books. As I've sat and listened to Allison, Dagoberto Gilb, Lynn Freed, and others read from their latest narratives, I've been reminded how much literature can shed light on a subject that lies at the very heart of management: the human condition. "I am rereading each summer—and have for many years—the main novelists," Drucker wrote to a friend in 1997. Among them, he said, were Austen, Thackeray, Trollope, and George Eliot. "I never read management books," Drucker added. "All they do is corrupt the style."

I can, of course, think of at least one management writer whose work qualifies as a great exception.

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