Drucker Does Spirituality

Considering that this is the month in which Jews observe Hanukkah, Muslims mark al-Hijra, Buddhists commemorate Bodhi Day, and Christians celebrate Christmas, it is the perfect time to explore a topic that makes many people squirm: the role of religion in the workplace.

Peter Drucker, for his part, never shied from the subject. On one level, he viewed theology as he did most any other discipline, be it art or literature, history or sociology, philosophy or psychology. Because these fields shed light on the way human beings interact, it is incumbent on managers to learn lessons from all of them.

Drucker, for example, turned to the New Testament to explain how difficult it can be to get a message across to someone if it goes against the person's values or aspirations. "Even the Lord, the Bible reports, first had to strike Saul blind before he could raise him as Paul," Drucker wrote. "Communications aiming at conversion demand surrender."

He also found that certain religious institutions were showcases for efficiency and effectiveness. "No other organization to this day equals the Catholic Church in the elegance and simplicity of its structure," Drucker remarked in an article published in the late 1980s. "There are only four layers of management: pope, archbishop, bishop, and parish priest. Armies have 10 layers, and General Motors (GM) close to 20. And what in business is called the 'central staff overhead'—for the most transnational of all organizations and one serving close to a billion members worldwide—numbers 1,500 people in Rome, far fewer than are employed in the headquarters of the large American corporation."

A Role for Compassion

But it's on a much deeper level, Drucker asserted, that religion can have a positive influence on the world of work and, indeed, on the world at large. "Society needs a return to spiritual values—not to offset the material but to make it fully productive," Drucker wrote in his 1957 book Landmarks of Tomorrow. "However remote its realization for the great mass of mankind, there is today the promise of material abundance or at least of material sufficiency.

"Mankind needs the return to spiritual values, for it needs compassion," Drucker continued. "It needs the deep experience that the Thou and the I are one, which all higher religions share."

Bringing such ideas into the office can be difficult, of course. Some, feeling offended, will undoubtedly push back or run away. "Americans are increasingly concentrated at opposite ends of the religious spectrum—the highly religious at one pole, and the avowedly secular at the other," Robert Putnam and David Campbell note in their new book American Grace (Simon and Schuster). (I myself am a semi-observant Jew, who is struggling to make the grand leap from pure reason to true faith.)

Kierkegaard Influence

As for Drucker, he grew up in an Austrian home in which, as he once described it, "the Lutheran Protestantism … was so 'liberal' that it consisted of little more than a tree at Christmas and Bach cantatas at Easter." As a young man, he was deeply moved by the Danish religious philosopher Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling; after reading it, Drucker determined "that my life … would have to have an existential dimension which transcends society." When he got older, he became a practicing Episcopalian while expressing appreciation for the pastoral megachurch, which he identified as "surely the most important social phenomenon" in late 20th-century America.

All along, he wasn't one to call much attention to his own spirituality. But many see it as a strong thread through his work. Drucker's "practical wisdom" and his unwavering "urge for moral purpose" are "deeply rooted in Christian faith," concludes Timo Meynhardt, managing director of the Center for Leadership and Values in Society at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, in a paper published earlier this year.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the way Drucker counseled organizations to treat their employees—namely, as assets possessing tremendous value. Big companies "must offer equal opportunities for advancement," Drucker wrote in Concept of the Corporation. "This is simply the traditional demand for justice, a consequence of the Christian concept of human dignity."

Akin to the Golden Rule

In a piece that appeared in the magazine Spirituality & Health in 2005, just a few months before Drucker died, Procter & Gamble (PG) executive Craig Wynett and T. George Harris, the former editor of Harvard Business Review, suggested that the fundamental Drucker principle, "the marketer is the consumer's representative," is built on the Golden Rule, which many trace to sacred sources such as the Torah.

Drucker found religious inspiration, as well, when talking about tolerance and the need to encourage multiple points of view—another hallmark of the best organizations. "I've always felt that quite clearly the good Lord loves diversity," Drucker said. "He created 2,500 species of flies. If he had been like some theologians I know, there would have been only one right specie of fly."

With that in mind, I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season, no matter what you believe in, or choose not to.

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