A great thinker who wore many hats with equal elan

Updated: Nov 16 2005, 05:30am hrs
It is very difficult to write about a thinker of the caliber of Peter Drucker. I have focused on his earlier years to appreciate what might have shaped him; my assumption is that his later and more prolific years would be better known.

Druckers father, Adolph, was a senior civil servant in the Finance Ministry in the Vienna of Habsburg Austria. Young Peter had early influences with respect to free trade, psychology, humanism and so on. Sensing a bleak future within a fractured post-war Austria, Peter escaped to Germany in 1927 at the age of 18. For two years, he worked as a manager, first in an export firm, then in a bank. Perhaps that was his only first-hand experience of management. He lost his job at the bank after the Wall Street crash and became a journalist at General- Anzeiger.

Druckers philosophical thinking began as a humanist and moralist of sorts. In Europe, he felt that managers exercised too much power over the lives of subjects who never formally agreed to such a relationship. In 1937, Drucker set foot in New York City. Once in America, he seemed to thaw. He was impressed by American managers integrity, and revised his earlier belief that managers were exploiters. He spent seven years as a faculty member in Bennington College, Vermont, which gave him the freedom to teach whatever subjects I thought I needed learning in.

A senior manager in General Motors, Donaldson Brown, invited Drucker to study the worlds largest company when Alfred Sloan was president. Drucker got a ringside view of the goings-on at the corporation.

In 1946, Drucker wrote his seminal book The Concept of the Corporation. There were parts of the book that Sloan did not agree with. In Sloans philosophy, profit not legitimacy, was the best guide to corporate conduct. For Drucker, profitability was a secondary issue.

On the success of his book, Drucker became advisor to GE chairman, Ralph Cordiner, in the 1950s, and later to Reginald Jones. When Jack Welch became chairman in 1981, Drucker was among the first people he met. He is reported to have asked Welch, If you were not already in this business, would you get into it By Welchs own admission, thinking through the answer to this question led to the portfolio rationalisation that followed in GE.

Druckers experiences at GM and GE led to his magnum opus in 1954, The Practice of Management. After that, there was a series of books, some two dozen in all. Drucker was not a professional manager for any length of time. He converted this into an opportunity to watch managers and reflect on their work with a rare sensitivity.

Peter Drucker was too much of a guru in his lifetime for any active debate on whether he was an academic, a consultant, an economist or a journalist. He was all of them. However, after his death, the debate may well begin.

The author is executive director, Tata Sons