Peter F. Drucker once responded to a request to discuss his personal strategies for self-renewal with a teaching point about self-renewal: “One of the secrets of keeping young is not to give interviews but to stick to one’s work — and that’s what I’m doing. Sorry, I am not available.”
Earlier in his career, according to John J. Tarrant’s biography “Drucker”, he responded to distracting requests with a preprinted postcard that read:
Mr. Peter F. Drucker appreciates your kind interest, but is unable to:
— Contribute Articles or Forewords,
— Comment on Manuscripts or Books,
— Take part in Panels or Symposia,
— Join Committees or Boards of any kind,
— Answer Questionnaires,
— Give Interviews and,
— Appear on Radio or Television.
Yet when asked to spend time with an unknown and unproven young man seeking his way in the world, Drucker freely gave the better part of a day to mentor and give guidance. I had the honor of writing about that day in the foreword to The Daily Drucker, wherein I recount how Drucker altered the trajectory of my life by framing our discussion around one simple question: “What do you want to contribute?”
And therein we find the secret to Peter Drucker: He had a remarkable ability not just to give the right answers, but more important, to ask the right questions — questions that would shift our entire frame of reference. Throughout his work runs a theme that highlights a fundamental shift, away from achievement — jettisoning with the flick of his hand, as if he were waving away an irritating gnat, any consideration of the question of what you can “get” in this world — to the question of contribution. Drucker’s relentless discipline to say “no thank you” to invitations and inquiries stemmed from thinking always about how he could best contribute with his one lifetime.
That contribution was huge. Bob Buford, founder of the Leadership Network of churches, once suggested that Drucker contributed as much to the triumph of free society over tyranny as any other individual. For a free society to function we must have high-performing, autonomous institutions spread throughout. Without that, the only workable alternative is totalitarianism (as Drucker himself pointed out in his text Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices). Strong institutions, in turn, depend directly on excellent management, and no individual contributed more to our understanding of effective management in the last 50 years than Peter Drucker. Winston Churchill saved the free world, but Peter Drucker showed us how to make that free world work.
Drucker never forgot his own teaching: Ask not what you can achieve but what you can contribute. If he had been granted another 95 years, I’m confident he would have continued to produce. At age 85, when asked which of his 26 books he was most proud of, he responded: “The next one.” In intervening years he published at least eight more volumes, and at age 95, shortly before his death, he released yet another.
But for me, Drucker’s most important lessons cannot be found in any text or lecture but in the example of his life. I made a personal pilgrimage to Claremont, Calif., in 1994 seeking wisdom from the greatest management thinker of our age, and I came away feeling that I’d met a compassionate and generous human being who — almost as a side benefit — was a prolific genius. We have lost not a guru on a pedestal but a beloved professor who welcomed students into his modest home for warm and stimulating conversation. Peter F. Drucker was driven not by the desire to say something but by the desire to learn something from every student he met — and that is why he became one of the most influential teachers most of us have ever known.