How Peter Drucker Became a Somebody

March 6, 2017 - Dr. William A. Cohen

*Adapted from Peter Drucker on Consulting (LID, 1916)

drucker1.jpgMillions worldwide have heard the name Peter Drucker. Peter Drucker was the most famous management thinker over the last hundred years, and perhaps of all time. However, Drucker could easily have qualified as a self-help and motivational guru. Drucker not only believed in and taught self-development, but he practiced the methods he developed (which he called “self-management”) himself. He believed that every person was responsible for his own development and for learning and application of the principles to reach his or her personal best. 

The Secret Mind Methods Drucker Developed to Reach Success
His own career and accomplishments confirmed his belief.  As I said, Drucker reached even the loftiest of his intended goals and dreams. There are hundreds of great executives and distinguished professors by the bunches which could potentially claim the title that Drucker holds. Yet, if you input “The Father of Modern Management” into a search engine, you will see whose name pops out --- every time. 


How did this inexperienced young man, born and raised in Austria early in the last century become a seer predicting events decades in the future, an adviser of powerful chief executives and heads of state about what they should or should not do, or writing books which years after his death are read by tens of thousands of executives worldwide seeking success, go on to intensely study, reflect on, and apply to managing activities from corporations to politics to religion? It is only Drucker to whom Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric, Rick Warren, Pastor of the famed Saddleback Church which he founded, billionaire Chinese businessman Minglo Shao and many successful entrepreneurs and managers share common allegiance to this single genius. 

How Did Drucker the Innocent Become Drucker the World-Renowned Genius?
Drucker claims to have gotten his start because he could participate in adult conversations with his father. Perhaps, but many fathers allow their sons to interact intellectually with adult friends yet one doesn’t see them necessarily acknowledged as a genius. But clearly Drucker started with something. He made mistakes, sometimes big mistakes, but he learned from them. 

His First Big Chance was a Major Failure 
As a young man in of 20, Drucker wrote a column for a major German newspaper. He predicted a rosy future and a bull stock market worldwide. He was forced to retract these words a few short weeks later and his second big newspaper article was about the stock market crash which began the world depression. He acknowledged his major blunder. . . and he learned not to repeat the same mistake twice.

Humiliation Turns into Applause
He continued to make predictions throughout his career. Most of them were years ahead of their time and almost every one was heralded as a success. These ranged from The End of Economic Man (the title of his first book) which earned a glowing recommendation from Winston Churchill in 1939, the rise of the “knowledge worker” (a term he invented), how the country would have to pay a terrible price for the actions of both top management and the unions, again predicted decades earlier, the rise of executive education on the Internet, and a lot more. In fact, hardly a day passes that a reader cannot find something written by Drucker and noting his phenomenal ability to predict the future years before a major event occurs --- a modern seer who rivals Nostradamus in the magnitude of his predictions but without the mysticism and difficulty in interpretation! Per Drucker, unlike his failed prediction about the stock market, he merely “looked through the window” and noted what had already happened. Then he took one very important step more than anyone else: he asked himself what this action which had already occurred was likely to mean for the future.

Drucker’s Accomplishments --- More than Staggering Predictions
However, Drucker did more than gaze into a crystal ball and write about what he saw. In the 1950s Drucker became the first to assert that workers should be treated on the asset side of the accounting ledger, and should not be listed as liabilities. It was Drucker who introduced the idea of decentralization, a concept adopted by every large organization in the world and the basis of many new management concepts. He promoted management by objectives whereby performance evaluations are not based on generalities or appearances, but on objectives and goals agreed to earlier by both supervisor and subordinate.  He introduced the revolutionary idea that since there was no business without a customer, the purpose of a business was not profit after all, but rather was to create a customer. This led to the rise of companies which focused primarily on the customer and became immensely successful. How else do you explain a college dropout like Steve Jobs, founder of Apple computers, creating an entire high technology industry. Jobs himself explained: “If you keep your eye on the profit, you’re going to skimp on the product. But if you focus on making really great products, then the profits will follow.”

How do we Know Drucker had a Method?
Self-development was a major theme throughout Drucker’s writings and teachings though it has been overlooked by almost all those who read and even those who analyze Drucker’s writings. “What matters,” he wrote, “is that the knowledge worker, by the time he reaches middle age, has developed and nourished a human being rather than a tax accountant or a hydraulic engineer.” 

Drucker was not putting down tax accountants or hydraulic engineers, but rather trying to say that by his definition to be a human being one had to take the time to be highly proficient in more than one field.  Not everyone knows that in addition to his management books he was a professor of Japanese art and had co-authored a book on this subject.  It was one of the keys he practiced as he became celebrated as the world’s greatest management thinker to accomplish any goal and to be recognized as one of the best in any field. But Drucker thought that every individual had to become expert, in more than one discipline. In an interview in his later years, he said that he had learned to teach himself by methods he had learned in the 4th grade. 

What Happened When Drucker Left Home?
Drucker didn’t join a jazz band, or begin a dead-end job which is headed nowhere; Drucker set off for Hamburg, Germany and acquired a business apprenticeship in an export firm. 

Yet Drucker signed up at the Hamburg University to get a law degree at the same time, an early part time college student. However, working during the day before classes for a law degree wasn’t enough to occupy Drucker. He began a program of reading both fiction and nonfiction books, in what he himself termed “every field.” I do not know whether he truly read such a wide variety of books while both working and studying. It is possible that he read some and skimmed others. 

Some years after his death someone asked his widow, Doris Drucker, still brilliant and active when she was over 100 years’ young, what management books Peter read. “None,” she responded, “although he did skim quite a few.” In any case, few or many, I think we would have to write down training himself for multi-tasking as one of the keys to how Drucker became the Drucker known today. 

After Law School
On completion of his apprenticeship and his law degree one might ask, “Did he go into business or did he practice law?” The answer is that he did neither. By then he was on to a system. He left Hamburg for Frankfurt. He got a job as a journalist and at the began a doctorate which he told his students was the easiest to get at the time. So, there he was again, writing and working simultaneously. However, by then he had decided on a career as an academic. He contacted an uncle at the University of Cologne seeking help in attaining a teaching job. However, before this could culminate in a position, Hitler came to power. With Jewish linage on both sides of his family, he immediately left the country.

The basis for his development was now set: work hard and develop his talents, do more than others thought possible, simultaneously if required, and take immediate action based on good predictions. The magnitude of his accurate prediction is obvious today, but it might not have been back in 1933. Many of Drucker’s contemporaries with similar ethnic backgrounds refused to accept what Hitler’s rise meant. Drucker had read Mein Kampf. He said that Hitler was the most dangerous man in Europe. Others yet still refused to believe that anything could happen to the Jews in “civilized” Germany.  They were wrong. Drucker dropped everything and left for England within days of Hitler’s becoming German chancellor.

Drucker’s successful method was simple 

1. Read daily for knowledge
2. Write for publication daily for self-development and recognition
3. Plan ahead
4. Understand what major actions that have already occurred mean for the future and have the courage to take personal actions as a result if required



About the Author

Dr. William A. Cohen, Major General USAF, Ret. - CIAM President Emeritus

Dr. Bill Cohen is a retired Air Force general and you can “Google” him as “Major General William A. Cohen.” He graduated from West Point and has an MBA from the University of Chicago and an MA in Management and PhD in Executive Management from the Peter Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University. In 2009 he received an award as a distinguished alumnus from that institution. He’s a distinguished graduate of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington, DC in residence. His more than 50 books on business and Management, including A Class with Drucker, Drucker on Marketing, Drucker on Leadership, and his latest book, The Practical Drucker, have been published in 23 languages.

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