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In the recent past, I have had several opportunities to visit Peter Drucker at his home in Claremont near Los Angeles. We have been also corresponding for years on management issues. From our personal encounters and discussions, I gained numerous insights which stand in contradiction to the constantly changing fads so characteristic of modern management literature and teachings. In the following article, I would like to share the most relevant of these insights with the reader.
Management is more than a fad
Management literature's stormy development in the last twenty years has left a clear imprint on books and especially magazines. One reoccurring aspect - the fo-cus on new fads, catch phrases and recipes for success - are pushed by the respec-tive authors as "the" solution for current problems. Reengineering, total quality management, time competition, outsourcing, benchmarking, core competency and similar concepts have all been trumpeted as ultimate, definitive methods. The con-temporary case studies which support these claims seem to remove all empirical doubt. The fad "revolution" - a concept which management guru Gary Hamel ap-plies to corporate leadership - is the latest designer outfit in this never-ending man-agement fashion show.
Three to six months after publication (particularly in the Harvard Business Review) concepts like these would be adopted to the letter by US corporate boardrooms, often without a critical look. My experience as a non-executive director in a US company for many years confirmed this. In companies outside the United States, managers demonstrated a greater degree of resistance.
But the vast majority of these management fads are deceptive nonsense, especially when applied in a one-sided and exaggerated manner. This is perhaps the most important insight which I gained through my experiences with Peter Drucker. Most of these "perfect" ideas fade away after a few years. In the 1980's, IBM was con-sidered the paradigm for a super company, a leader in areas such as closeness to customer. At the beginning of the 1990's, the bestseller "The Machine that Changed the World" described Japanese automobile manufacturers as unbeatable. Later, computer companies like Hewlett Packard, Compaq or Dell served as role models. More recently, Nokia or Cisco apparently discovered the philosopher's stone and showed other companies the right way to success. Today, these compa-nies find themselves in critical condition. How will General Electric, one of today's corporate heroes, be seen in a few years?
Good management has nothing to do with short-term successes and the manage-ment elixirs that allegedly led to them. This seemingly banal insight results from a long-term, historical perspective like Drucker's. It cannot be achieved by judg-ments based on quarterly results, but rather emerges from a deeply rooted under-standing of the durable, unclouded by short-term spectacular success stories. Not the momentary "how" is important, but rather the seminal "why." Past stock mar-ket euphoria of the years 1999/2000 and the sense of doom that prevailed after September 11, 2001 appear in a new light when seen from Drucker's perspective. Only a historical yardstick and an understanding of the "why" help us recognize what leads companies to success over the long-term.
Peter Drucker teaches us from history. He holds up a historical mirror which pro-vides both a new perspective and better understanding of the future. He comes full circle with Sren Kierkegaard, whom Drucker admires and who said: "Life can only be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards." For that reason, Peter Drucker - by orienting himself on the past - is a brilliant intellectual guide into the future.