Peter Georg Ferdinand Drucker was born in Vienna on 15 November 1909 in an affluent suburb of the city into a family well connected with Vienna’s intelligentsia. All of this settled existence came to an abrupt end in 1914 as Austrian and its empire became the centre of World War I. By 1919 Austrian was not only defeated but it had lost its empire and was bankrupt. Drucker reflected that everybody was poor, as the adult citizens starved while only the American and British charities-organised food relief saved the children.
Despite the privation, basic life continued, including Drucker’s schooling. He recorded that his first external influence came in the last year as junior, where he was taught to set personal targets and regularly review his progress to make the necessary adjustments. He was also taught that it was easier to achieve excellence in your aptitudes than even become good at your low-aptitude activities. These lessons became one of his most important epigrams, which was “to play to your strengths and eliminate your weaknesses”.
Just short of his 18th birthday, with his schooling completed, Drucker enrolled part-time at Hamburg University while serving an apprenticeship as a shipping clerk. The most long-term influence from this period of his life was to follow the composer Verdi’s promise to himself that he would work all of his life, and that his next work would be his best. Also, through Kierkegaard – the depressive Danish Protestant – he found ‘Him’, the Christian God.
It was also through Kierkegaard that he discovered the Protestant work ethic, and its morality – based upon personal responsibility. He credits Kierkegaard for his discovering the purpose of life, which included unswerving ethical behaviour.
After 15 months he transferred to Frankfurt University to continue his degree, and he began working as a journalist. He completed his doctorate in international law, and remained in Frankfurt until 1933 when he judiciously left for England after he had published an analytical political paper that criticised Hitler.
In England he found work first as an insurance analyst and then in a merchant bank in London, while he also continued his studies and part-time journalism. Having found his purpose of life, which was the basis for his ethics, he continued his quests for a workable – not Utopian – society, followed by an economics theory that would not cause a repetition of the Depressions of the past.
Despite his busy schedule, by chance he visited a Japanese art exhibition and consequently he became an expert on the Japanese Zen period; he later taught the subject at a professional level. In early 1937 he married the German Doris Schmitz, the woman who became his lifetime wife, and together they moved to the United States.
In America, Drucker continued his career in economic research and journalism as he prepared to publish his first book in 1939. This was followed by his 1942 book, which coincided with him adding university lecturing to his range of work. Both books received positive reviews, and set out his further discourses. After extensive research following the suggestion of Alexis de Tocqueville, he concluded that the USA was the closest to a workable society.
On economics, he also agreed with Joseph Schumpeter that a free market society with its entrepreneurial 'creative destruction was the relevant theory, rather than John Maynard Keynes’s continual adjusting and controls.
We have seen that Drucker’s life was made up of two four-part journeys, the first being locational – Austria, Germany, England, USA; so far we have touched on three of the four parts of his other journey, that of intellectual discovery: ethics, society and economics. What had become apparent to him at this stage of his inquiry was that economics was a passive set of theories, and that the dynamic driving force was elsewhere. What he discovered, and what he is constantly recognised for, is his work on management, which was driven by the belief that “the manager is the life-giving element in every business (organisation)”.
This was Drucker’s fourth intellectual discovery, which enabled him to become the leading management consultant during his peak years, when he worked for the government and many major businesses.
An examination of his life’s work reveals that few meaningful management ideas escaped his attention as his outpourings over 65 years equate to eleven times The Complete Works of Shakespeare.
As for his legacy, he changed the way we managed and kept his promise to work all his life, as he turned his attention to non-profit management when he was 80 years old. The ongoing Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Non-profit Management was the result, as he told managers that this was an area that they might find attractive for their careers.
When people who are prominent in any field die, their memories soon fade. Only a few live on. Drucker is one of the few, as he is remembered for his unique contribution. His awards, which include the President’s Prize in America and that of the Emperor of Japan, are too numerous to list. For him they were part of his ongoing journey.
Since his death at home in Claremont, California, on 11 November 2005 – eight days short of his 96th birthday – Drucker Societies have been formed all over the world. The latest, the Drucker Society London, is the latest to be established, in September 2012.
As a starting point for Drucker, we will all have our favourites. Besides the primacy of the customer to organisations, his essential message to the manager is that that management is the integration of all of the managed functions, whose importance in the organisation will change from time to time and require adjustment in priority.
To get inside Drucker’s mind is the most rewarding task, as his application of holistic Gestalt through philosophy, whereby the examination of events or activities in relation to each other produces different conclusions when viewed in isolation. If Drucker has no other benefit for you, he will teach you how to think.