Peter Drucker has moved on. The father of modern management, the philosopher to the business world, the man who saw tomorrow and also the day after. He was the most prolific and impactful writer on management—spanning several decades. In all this, his greatness leaves behind a vacuum that will be difficult to fill up anytime soon.
We'll miss his simplicity. With all the wisdom of the world, it took this man to tell us for the first time that people are the most important resource of any corporation. Imagine, the world of business had not realised that simple fact! It was capital, not people, that was centrestage. It was capital, not thinking human beings, which determined productivity, differentiation, profits and all that the world of business is made of. The day Drucker said we've just missed the exit, the whole world changed. That simple sentence went on to define the basic tenet of enterprise. Where did this man get his simplicity from?
For this Austrian journalist-turned-business philosopher, it was something he came gifted with. All of us who have ever tried to be simple know how difficult it can be. Yet the most profound things in life are so simple they invariably escape us. Consider this: Drucker said most of us, much of the time are trying to 'solve' problems but most problems in life cannot be solved. You can only stay ahead of them. Too often, leadership gets so focused on solving problems that in reality, it begins to feed them and in the process starves the various opportunities that may actually be just sitting out there. If you look at the history of our civilisation, if you look at the points of triumph in our own lives, you would find that disproportionate progress has always been the child of chasing an opportunity as against feeding a problem.
For Drucker, today's organisations completely underestimate the power of volunteerism. In reality, most organisations do not understand the concept and have never harnessed this important aspect of people's innate capability to achieve. If we look at the history of humanity again, we would find that the greatest achievements the most pervasive and impacting acts have always been the acts of volunteerism. From the Indian freedom movement to the spread of religions to the greatest acts of discovery and innovation, people have done their best whenever it's come from within. True involvement and sustained impact are neither dictated by the system nor is a Pavlovian response to material gratification.
Drucker's thought on volunteerism becomes even more profound in the digitally integrated world in which oversight must be increasingly replaced by self-regulation in every field. As that new reality unfolds, would organisations just pray that it works in their favour? Or do they have to eat a different breakfast so that they do not get disenfranchised by the worker of the future? It is the worker of the future who would decide what to give to the organisation and in what measure. If the organisation lays down the service level agreement (SLA), it would get back only that much. So how do leaders of tomorrow make sure that people contribute the productivity, the differentiation and the profits to help the organisation stay ahead? Material incentives, said Drucker, work only in good times.
More than ever before, we will hear about the value-centered workplace with the emergence of the volunteer worker. Drucker said it is values that save us from breaking apart. To him, any form of growth is inherently destructive. All growth is a tussle between centripetal forces that want to hold on to the core versus centrifugal forces that want to explore the extremities. The key issue for leaders, therefore, becomes: how do you grow? It was Drucker who said, forget all management, look at mother nature. After all, no one has ever handled growth the way she has. For instance, when she needed to create moving beings, she found out the most optimal way of doing it right. She figured out that moving beings should be symmetric at the poles. Thereafter, she kept the concept of 'polar symmetry' as a constant and changed everything else around it. Using the principle of polar symmetry, she created the two-legged human being, countless four-legged animals and even the centipede! "What," asks Drucker, "is polar symmetry for organisations?" It is values. If we keep values constant, we can grow without breaking apart. It is true of the family, the society, the corporation and even the government itself.
Drucker was not without his critics. There have always been people who said he would often retrofit theory to deliver his simplistic views. There have been people who have been cynical of his concern for the larger good—often suspecting populism as his driver. But the truth is, no one has been able to come close enough, no one has been able to deliver a credible alternative to all that he stood for. His work remains a collective treasure of mankind. A towering statesman and a management/business philosopher our world will miss for a long, long time.
(Subroto Bagchi is the CEO of MindTree Consulting)
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