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The Liberal Art of Management - Peter Drucker

Dec 31, 2020 10:54:24 AM / by Tim McCarthy

Peter Drucker was a professor and consultant who is often called the inventor of modern management theory. He was an early observer of such widely-accepted management concepts as MBOs (management by objective), knowledge workers, outsourcing (“do what you do best and outsource the rest”) and planned obsolescence (he termed “planned abandonment).


For me, Drucker’s prominence is that he was an early advocate that management is a liberal art, “liberal because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; ‘art’ because it deals with practice and application.”

If you manage one person or more, I highly recommend reading (re-reading) Drucker.

Professor Drucker wrote 39 books, a half dozen of which I read at the time they were published. My two favorites are “Adventures of a Bystander” (1978), “New Realities” (1989).

The first book referenced above is autobiographical but really a series of essays about the people he encountered in his life by that time. From memories of his Grandmother to learning at the feet of some of his parents’ friends, such as Sigmund Freud, Drucker speaks humbly as not one who “did” but one who writes about those who “did”. I admired his humility and insights.

“New Realities” was another that included but went far beyond his specialty: business management writing. The book centers on 1. The end of the New Deal era, 2. The democratization of the Soviet Union, 3. Organizational change required by information-based economies and 4. Management as a social function and liberal art. Breakthrough observations at the time, from a then 80-year-old Drucker.

The distinguishing factor of Drucker’s studies and theories of business and organizational management is his humanism. He was one of the earliest to suggest that great executives should be students of psychology, history and philosophy as well as economics, operations and management.

What else is an organization than a collection of human beings? What drives the economic or social performance of an organization besides high performing people deployed effectively by themselves and their leadership teams?

He saw human capital as of equal or greater importance than financial capital. Most of his theories in fact revolve around growing worker knowledge, then giving them the freedom to use it.

I was fortunate in that my early business career was spent in politics, then advertising. My first great mentor in politics taught me that we could only help our candidates win by learning the psychology of the voter they sought to persuade. In advertising, the chairman of my firm once said, “we can’t make money for our clients unless we can get lost in a grocery stores, trying to discern how product, packaging, placement and pricing might cause our target customer to purchase”. Merchandising, as this is called in retail, is the ultimate combination of science and art.

Over time I’ve learned that effective business management is in the balance of human and economic concerns. Or as Drucker said, “in a knowledge society all knowledges have to be brought down and applied to the work of human beings.”



Tim McCarthy

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Tim McCarthy

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