The Practice of Management

Article authors:

“The manager of tomorrow will not be able to remain an intuitive manager. [S]he will have to master system and method, will have to conceive patterns and synthesize elements into wholes, will have to formulate general concepts and to apply general principles. Otherwise [s]he will fail” (p. 374).

In today’s environment of rapid change, advanced technology, and big data, the above quote is certainly worth consideration. This is all the more reason to be amazed by the fact that it was written way back in 1954 by Peter Drucker, one of the most influential figures in the study and practice of management.

Back to Basics: The Practice of Management

The Study of Australian Leadership (SAL) suggests — among other things — that we should pay more attention to the fundamentals of management. This is precisely what Drucker does in his seminal book, The Practice of Management – a book that I would recommend to aspiring and experienced leaders alike.

Some people would argue that speaking of things like management-by-objectives is “so 80s and 90s”, and that the Centre for Workplace Leadership really ought to catch up on the latest management fads—er—concepts (?).

I would first reply that management-by-objectives is not “so 80s or 90s”; it’s actually “so 50s” (considering the 1954 publication of The Practice of Management), but could probably be dated earlier. However, like sliced bread, the wheel, and mathematics, many old inventions are worth keeping around.

Who cares about “Management” when there’s so much out there on “Leadership”?

Drucker begins the book with definitions, but don’t skip these bits. Anyone who tends to throw away literature relating to “management” in favour of literature (or listicles) relating to “leadership” are doing themselves a great disservice. The author is explicit in stating that the manager should not simply mean “the boss” or someone who “does his [or her] work by getting other people to do theirs” (p. 6).* Rather, he sees management as a necessary function in the organisation – encompassing much of what we “modern folks” would consider to be leadership. This is actually consistent with many modern views on how management and leadership are related, as explained in our SAL report (chapters 2 and 6).

Drucker then discusses what it means to manage a business, manage other managers, and manage workers and their work itself. However, what particularly resonates with me right now is a discussion that comes toward the end of the book, around “The Manager of Tomorrow”. So I’ll focus on that…

“The Manager of Tomorrow”

According to Drucker (pages 372-373), the manager of tomorrow will have seven new tasks…**

  1. Manage by objectives.
  2. Take more risks and consider the long term, and this will need to occur even at lower levels of the organisation.
  3. Make strategic decisions.
  4. Build an integrated team of people who can monitor their own performance and targets.
  5. Communicate information quickly and clearly to motivate others to participate responsibly.
  6. See the business as a whole and understand how one’s own function is integrated. (Drucker is explicit in pointing out that it is no longer enough to simply know about more than one business function; managers must be much more holistic and proactive in their approach.)
  7. Similar to the above point, be able to relate one’s product and industry to the larger environment, understanding how it might play a role in or be affected by things happening in other markets and countries. (Again, Drucker is explicit in acknowledging that many people know multiple products or industries, but that what will be required of future managers is substantially more than this.)

To equip the manager of tomorrow to complete these tasks, Drucker presents a few ideas about the education of future leaders (which, by the way, he suggests can begin at any stage of one’s life).

What the Manager of Tomorrow Needs to Know

Drucker suggests that the manager of tomorrow will start with an educational foundation that is even more fundamental than things like managing by objectives. He emphasises the importance of “…the writing of poetry and of short stories. For these two courses teach a [wo]man how to express himself [or herself], teach him [or her] words and their meaning and, above all, give him [or her] practice in writing” (p. 375).

The author also emphasises the importance of being able to think logically and orally defend one’s arguments, as one might do in defending a thesis at the end of a course of study, but on a continuing basis. Drucker then points out the importance of a “basic understanding of science and scientific method” (p. 375).

Finally, the author notes the importance of obtaining basic knowledge of history, political science, and economics to help understand the environment and the place one’s work, product, and/or industry has in that environment.

This prescription of knowledge areas is deceptively basic. No single area comes across as particularly difficult to master. However, the important question is how many managers cover them all – how to express themselves; how to write; how to build and defend arguments; how to conduct scientific enquiry; and what is going on in history, politics, and the economy.

Getting Educated

Drucker explains that this type of knowledge acquisition can be integrated into virtually any area of training — from business to engineering. He notes that it may be accomplished through formal programs or on one’s own. However, I would argue that many people (myself included) lack the discipline to do the latter, especially considering the prevalence of distractions like Facebook, Twitter, and superhero movies in today’s world.

To finish up, I recommend that those interested in management and/or leadership (re-)visit the basics, perhaps even starting with Drucker’s book.

And for further reading about the state of leadership in Australia, take a look at the SAL report. It discusses several topics relating to what I’ve discussed here, including a profile of the educational qualifications of leaders (chapters 5 and 9), their mastery of management and human resource management fundamentals (chapters 6 and 7), and their use of leadership development programs (chapter 10).

Reference

Drucker, P. F. (1954). The Practice of Management. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Notes

* As a diversity management scholar, I’ll go ahead and warn the reader of Drucker’s exclusive use of male pronouns; it’s 1954, remember? But I tried to fix them in the quotes, as you can see by the bracketed text.

** Okay, I’ll acknowledge that this was probably the first good leadership listicle ever published, but I’ll also note that it was probably the last good leadership listicle ever published. (Stop sharing listicles, please.) Also, I’ll just remind you again that this was written in 1954! Fun idea: show those 7 points to your colleagues and ask them to guess where you got it from and when it was published. If they guess it was a recent Buzzfeed article, you should – at the very least – disown them (for other ideas on what to do with such colleagues, see Game of Thrones).

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Header image credit: Seattle Municipal Archives.