Drucker's Words of Wisdom

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By AMA Staff

William A. Cohen is president of the Institute of Leader Arts and The California Institute of Advanced Management. He was Peter Drucker’s first executive PhD graduate. He is the author of many books, including Heroic Leadership, A Class with Drucker, Drucker on Leadership, and most recently, The Practical Drucker: Applying the Wisdom of the World’s Greatest Management Thinker (AMACOM, 2013). He spoke with AMA recently for an Edgewise podcast. The following interview has been adapted from that interview.

AMA: How did Peter Drucker become the world’s most famous management consultant?
William A. Cohen: Well, he wrote 39 books, but lots of us write books. And he coached hundreds of top executives and heads of organizations. But I would say that he did have a secret, or maybe two secrets. I think the first one relates to a book I wrote some years ago. Someone came up with the subtitle, “Dare the impossible and achieve the extraordinary.” Well, Peter had mastered that absolutely. He frequently did things that were very, very difficult, and he took on responsibilities that are just amazing.

For example, when he graduated from the equivalent of what we would call high school, his father wanted him to go to college right away. Peter decided he did not wish to do that, and he started working at a full-time apprenticeship. While doing this, he not only began reading all kinds of books—novels and everything else—but he also went to night school and got a law degree at the University of Frankfurt. I would say that was secret number one, he achieved the extraordinary.

The other part of it was outstanding time commitment. Once he committed to something, he flat out did it. And that’s either in writing an article, or seeing a student, or making a recommendation for a student or, or anything else. Although a lot of us study time management and are aware that we don’t have unlimited time, we frequently let this principle of commitment slip by us. So I would say, these two secrets: dare the impossible and maintain your commitment were what made him so successful.

AMA: What else made Drucker so special?
Cohen: Peter really predicted the current financial problems and the situation we’re in 40 years ago, and he not only did it once, he did it several times. He said we would pay a terrible price for two things: number one, that the executive salaries in this country at the top level were simply way out of bounds, much too high—200 times the salary of the lowest-level employee. (Now it’s over 300 times). He also said that union demands were getting progressively more difficult, and for no other reason than they felt they were expected to make these demands. Every few years they would negotiate another contract and he felt that on both sides, labor and management, this was causing terrible damage to our system. His words were, “Eventually we will pay a terrible price for that.” And that’s kind of what’s happening right now.

AMA: You’ve said that in The Practical Drucker you’ve tried to take Drucker’s management concepts and show how to implement them to accomplish business goals. What are some of the concepts that you discuss in the book?
Cohen: Drucker is known as the father of modern management, but Phil Cotler, who is frequently called the father of modern marketing, says, “If I’m the father of marketing, then Peter Drucker was the grandfather.”

Drucker was one of the first to say that marketing and sales are not the same. But he went one step further than that. He said that not only are marketing and sales not the same, but they may actually be adversarial. In other words, one can hurt the other. Now, that’s an extraordinary statement. If you take Marketing 101, your textbook will state that sales is thought of as a subset of marketing. What he was talking about was that marketing is at a higher level. It’s strategy, and its strategy cannot be overcome by good tactics. In fact, just the opposite is true: If you have a bad strategy—say you’re going after the wrong market or you have the wrong product—you could have fantastic salesmen who really try hard and really work hard, and so they’re able to break even or maybe make a little profit. But if you were going after the right market with the right product, then not only would they have a lot easier job of selling, but in addition, they would make a lot of profit. So it’s a total misallocation of resources to try to overcome a bad strategy by good tactics, and, as Drucker said, marketing and sales can be adversarial.

AMA: What was the most important thing Drucker taught?
Cohen: I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in his writing, but he said it a lot in class: “What everyone knows is usually wrong.” That’s really an unusual statement, but you can find all kinds of examples of this, from people saying that the earth is flat, to you name it. What it means is you’ve got to think. Even though we’ve been doing something one way for 100 years in our industry, we should think about whether this is the best way or not, or whether there might be a better way. In fact, Drucker wrote that the biggest improvements come from outside a particular industry. It usually comes when there’s someone else comes to that industry from somewhere else, and they bring a new idea. It may be an old idea on one industry, but in the new industry, it’s brand new.

Again, it’s back to “dare the impossible.” Since what everyone knows is usually wrong, we have to think. We want to make improvements, we want to make changes, but we shouldn’t be afraid to dare the impossible. It’s always stunning to me when I think about the Wright Brothers. These two guys who had a bicycle shop, they’re the guys who invented powered flight, the first ones to successfully do a powered flight. Yet they weren’t engineers; they weren’t scientists. The government had put a lot of money into trying to develop this before, but they simply weren’t able to do it. They, these two bicycle guys, who had no engineering background and no scientific background, they’re the ones who pulled it off.

So the most important thing Drucker taught me was, you have to think. You have to think, because what everyone knows is usually wrong.

Learn more about The Practical Drucker: Applying the Wisdom of the World’s Greatest Management Thinker, by William A. Cohen (published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association).

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About The Author(s)

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