I recently had the pleasure to read The Practical Drucker: Applying the Wisdom of the World’s Greatest Management Thinker, by William A. Cohen. In this work, Cohen has taken some of the key nuggets of Peter Drucker’s insights and separated them into forty short vignettes or chapters. No chapter is longer than eight pages, making this a book that is easily readable and very accessible for the on-the-go leader with a few minutes here and there to read. The chapters themselves are grouped into four parts: People; Management; Marketing and Innovation; and Organization.
In sharing my own thoughts, I will categorize them into four parts: what I loved; what I liked; what I might have done differently; and what questions are created by this text. This review will not be one that gives a certain amount of stars, or a grade. Rather, it will show and share what I found particularly helpful (or not) in this text in an effort to help you in your decisions on whether to read this text for yourself, to sample it, or to skip it. For the record, I would encourage you to read The Practical Drucker, and I believe that it is the best book about Drucker and his thoughts since the publishing of The Drucker Difference: What the World’s Greatest Management Thinker Means to Today’s Business Leaders in 2010.
What I loved: The idea and concept of being a “how to” approach to Drucker’s ideas and writings was profound and unique. Given the sheer amount of writing Drucker did, to be able to provide a somewhat synthesized “how to” implement much of Drucker’s ideas and perspectives is a great contribution. Rick Wartzman, the executive director at The Drucker Institute said similarly, “By combing through Drucker’s enormous body of work and deftly synthesizing the ‘how to do’ (as opposed to the ‘what to do’) aspects of his writing, Bill has made a great contribution. In this way, The Practical Drucker is less redundant and more a revelation” (The Practical Drucker, ix).
I loved the structure and topics overall as presented in the text. Cohen’s stated goal in the introduction is to “explain forty of [Drucker’s] most important concepts and truths: keys for solving real-world problems and fundaments for today’s effective management and keen leadership” (3). Taking this goal at its face value, I believe the book certainly does this, and it does so well.
There are plenty of concepts within the book which I love. To highlight a few, I appreciate the connection of Drucker to James MacGregor Burns in the idea that leaders should treat all people like people (40). It’s an important reminder, one valuable for leadership and management. It also humanizes leadership and allows people to be people respecting them for their gifts, strengths, talents, and plain and simply for who they are. Likewise, this connected to Drucker’s ethical viewpoint that “Above All, Do No Harm” adapted from Hippocrates (90-96).
I greatly appreciate chapter 33: “Social Responsibility is a Win-Win.” This chapter, perhaps more than any other deals directly with my own areas of interest around the intersection of the different sectors of society in meeting the needs of the world. Cohen includes Drucker’s major thoughts regarding what a corporation can and perhaps must do to be socially responsible. These include: Don’t leave it to government; the corporate mission comes first; there is an unlimited liability clause; there are unique ethics of social responsibility; and there are opportunities for competitive advantage inherent in being socially responsible (209).
In the second to last chapter, chapter 39: “You must know your strengths” Cohen offers what some might call an obvious reminder to focus on strengths, but he also brings the reality and human element in with Drucker’s perspectives in the area. He adds helpfully, “While we can work on building our strengths, we are limited by time to do this. So focusing on the development of a minor strength while missing a major one can cause you- in the vernacular- to miss your calling” (246). This resonated with me much, bringing back an idea I had in arguing that “management is a liberal art” based on conversations and learning with Dr. Joseph A. Maciariello at the Peter F. Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management, as well as my own interpretation of Drucker which he presents in chapter 2 of his seminal work Management, (you know the big blue book), “Management as a Social Function and Liberal Art.”
What I liked: Similar to Drucker himself, Cohen makes effective use of short, snippet examples. These serve well to briefly illustrate the concepts, their importance, and how they can be experienced and realized. One such example comes in chapter 9, “What Everyone Knows is Usually Wrong.” One thing I learned and was reminded of constantly at the Drucker School was the importance of questioning. Cohen wrote, “What Drucker wanted to emphasize was that we must always question our assumptions, no matter from where they originate. This is especially so regarding anything that a majority of people ‘know’ or assume without questioning” (56). To help illustrate this, Cohen made use of an example from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with the truth that Doyle never wrote the words “Elementary, my dear Watson” which are always associated with his created Sherlock Holmes (57). He also introduced the rationale for the Sanhedrin in taking issue with themselves when there was a unanimous verdict (58). These two illustrations help illustrate examples of “what everyone knows is usually wrong.”
Another interesting snippet, was Cohen’s decision to include the story about the IBM founder Thomas Watson declining to fire an executive who lost $1 Million for the company. He included the humorous but encouraging quote, “‘Fire you?’ exclaimed Watson. ‘We just spent one million dollars as part of your education'” (69).
I also appreciated Cohen’s chapter 30: “Drucker’s theory of abandonment.” Abandonment is something Drucker advocated for, and I believe it is essential for real innovation and growth. To help illustrate abandonment, Cohen included a story about Jack Welch and General Electric (188-189).
What I might have done differently: Now, I have no issue with what Cohen included. But I might have done a few different things, based on my own interests and understanding of Drucker. First of all, I might have included some more of the social-sector applications of Drucker’s thought and wisdom. Drucker wrote extensively on his friendship and what he learned especially from Francis Hesselbein, formerly the CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, among other social sector leaders and perspectives.
For my own work, I have also found Drucker’s 5 Questions to be the most helpful tool and resource for me in implementing Drucker’s perspectives and thought. In this way, I wonder if they would have been perhaps the most practical and accessible “how to” for Drucker related questions and concepts and then would have been helpful for Cohen to reference at least. For more on these 5 Questions, see The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization.
Now regarding the five questions, Cohen does reference pieces of them throughout the book. Most notably, these have to do with who the customer is and what they value. Cohen writes, “Only the customer can truly define what quality is, what the customer considers of value can use, and therefore what is important to consider in a purchase” (109). This connects with the purpose of business being to create a customer (142). Drucker argued this throughout his works, but it is still amazing how the large scale answer to the question of what the purpose of business is, “is to make a profit.” What Cohen provides in synthesizing and distilling some of Drucker’s wisdom is the critical reminder that the purpose of business is not to create a profit (201) but to create a customer. However, this is not to downplay the importance of profit. This is the piece that I appreciate Cohen drew out, but would have loved to see more expansion around. Drucker argued as Cohen surmised that “a company can only make a social contribution if it is profitable” (204). This means that being profitable is necessary for sustainable social good and responsibility. What then is the purpose of profit though? For Drucker, profit’s importance was that it was the resource that was used for marketing and innovation (206).
What questions are created by this text: Drucker and the idea of the question go hand in hand. Drucker taught us to think and ask questions. I believe that Cohen really drove this point home, and in a way that helps create questions for the reader of this work in contemplating their own lives, leadership roles, and organizations. In this way, I believe this book is really a success in light of the goal of being a “how to” approach for Drucker’s thoughts and wisdom.
In particular, I would like to highlight a couple of places. Within chapter 5, Cohen offers Drucker’s reminders that failure is not the end, and for success one must never stop learning (38). To overcome and grow through failure, and to learn requires being able to ask questions. These questions might be about ourselves. But they also can be about the world around us. Drucker was revered for the way he was able to predict the future, but he did so largely by taking the large view of society and asking questions, especially some questions about what was assumed as a norm. Cohen adds, “Drucker gave us some good ideas on how to predict the future, but he said that the best way was to create the future ourselves” (101). To create the future, you have to allow space to think and ask questions.
In Cohen’s mind, this is the most profound insight from Drucker. According to him and as he writes in chapter 40, Drucker’s most valuable lesson is “to think and ask questions” (254).
In light of this, I wonder in no particular order: 1) What does everybody “know” now that in a year or two will be disproven (185)? 2) When did I actually make the decision to become a leader (44)? 3) In what areas in your life would it be good to claim ignorance in order to be able to ask questions, and hopefully the “right questions” which would ideally help oneself and others to think for themselves and discover (221-225)? 4) In light of crisis in organizations, such as the December news from Target and the theft of account information, how might Drucker’s insights shared in Cohen’s chapter 36 “What to do when an organization faces a crisis” prove helpful for reflection?
What questions come to mind for you about this book based on my thoughts here? As always, if you have questions, thoughts, or items for discussion on this post, or any post, please do not hesitate to comment below, email, or contact me on Twitter.
References and Sources
Image Source: The Practical Drucker
Texts and Books:
William A. Cohen, The Practical Drucker: Applying the Wisdom of the World’s Greatest Management Thinker, (New York, NY: AMACOM, 2014).
Peter F. Drucker, The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008).
Peter F. Drucker, Management: Revised Edition, (New York, NY: Collins Business, 2008).
Craig L. Pearce, Jospeh A. Maciariello & Hideki Yamawaki, eds., The Drucker Difference: What the World’s Greatest Management Thinker Means to Today’s Business Leaders, (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2010).
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