Rewriting Life

The Moses of Management

The World According to Peter Drucker

No pastor preaching to a congregation of CEOs could get far in his sermon without quoting from the scripture of Peter Drucker. Now that Jack Beatty, a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, has assembled a concise guide to Drucker’s published works-from The Concept of the Corporation in 1945 to 1993’s The Post-Capitalist Society-it’s easier than ever to see how Drucker acquired his reputation as the Moses of management.

As Beatty explains, Drucker was the first to see that in the modern economy corporate executives could no longer try to be Andrew Carnegies, personally overseeing entire industrial empires. Modern managers must instead focus on setting goals, organizing, motivating, communicating, measuring performance, and developing people. Only thus, for Drucker, can constant social and technological change be harnessed as innovation (what he calls “organized change”). If this sounds old hat, it’s because corporate America has so extensively absorbed and built upon Drucker’s ideas. As Beatty puts it, “Drucker’s gift is to create concepts that light up problems and possibilities; others, by his light, can see the new solutions.”

Beatty’s own gift is to draw out themes unlikely to be noticed by Drucker’s less thoroughgoing readers. “First and last,” he unexpectedly reveals, “Drucker is a moralist of our business civilization,” fitting his insights into corporate culture within the larger frame of his own hopes and frustrations about the course of 20th-century capitalism. From the first, Beatty says, Drucker could see in America’s workers the same kind of alienation that Marx had predicted would fuel revolution.The younger Drucker hoped that enlightened management practices-giving workers a guaranteed lifetime income, for example-would defuse this danger and reinforce a weakening social fabric. But due in large part to shortsightedness among both management and labor, Drucker’s dream of stability for industrial workers has never taken hold. A somewhat disillusioned Drucker writes today that workers must be free agents, expecting little loyalty from, and owing little loyalty to, their employers.

This story is part of our May/June 1998 Issue
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Admiring without being sycophantish, Beatty’s survey of the world as Drucker sees it-and as he would like to see it-makes enlightening reading. It’s also pleasingly brief, as any good sermon should be.

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