Managers get a raw deal these days – the 21st century is all about being a leader, an entrepreneur, an innovator, a disruptor. No one with an ounce of ambition wants a job title with the ‘M’ word in it any more. Which is a shame because, as the works of Peter Ferdinand Drucker – perhaps the first, certainly one of the most influential management thinkers – show, the discipline may be unfashionable but it still has a great deal to contribute.
Drucker – who practically invented management as a subject worthy of academic study – was a kind of organisational ecologist. A pragmatic thinker more interested in people than things, he preferred ‘looking out of the window to see what was visible but not yet seen’ to espousing clever-sounding theories.
Born in Vienna in 1909, Drucker escaped to Britain in 1933 and lived most of his life in America. He came of classic liberal intellectual stock – his father was friends with the economists Joseph Schumpeter and Friedrich Hayek, whose ideas influenced the young Peter and at the same time set him on a rather different path. ‘I was more interested in the behaviour of people than the behaviour of commodity prices,’ he once said.
He died in 2005 but his heyday was the 50s and 60s when he established many ideas that we take for granted today – knowledge workers, decentralisation, the demise of blue-collar occupations, even outsourcing. Then as now, the bosses running large, successful companies thought they were doing a pretty good job: Drucker tried to thoughtfully suggest how they might do an even better one.
He maintained that serving the needs of the customer was the prime purpose of a business, and the only way to build a sustainable one (yes he was ahead of that trend too).
To those who disagreed with him (not least legendary 1950s boss of GM Alfred Sloan) he was perhaps too keen to point out the inadequacies of others. But the 39 books he wrote still represent perhaps the most complete study of how to organise people in pursuit of positive commercial and social results ever made by one man.