Book Review: The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done

Book Review: The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done

Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done. New York: Collins Business, 1967; reprint 2006. (aff)

There are countless books on leadership and a plethora of people who publicly express their leadership views. But these books often add little or nothing new to leadership thought, and much of what the experts say sounds the same. After reading numerous books on leadership, one begins to recognize when people are simply regurgitating what others have already said. When I trace back much of today’s leadership thought, I inevitably find myself at the doorstep of one man: Peter Drucker. He is, to me, one of the foremost leadership gurus. His book The Effective Executive, though written in1967, still speaks powerfully to leadership issues. Though dated in some ways, scanning its pages immediately alerts the reader that Drucker is a leadership sage whose wisdom remains relevant.

I should clarify something at this point. Some of the quotes I include from Drucker’s book will appear to be self-evident or common leadership practice. What we must remember is that these statements were groundbreaking when Drucker originally made them! After his book’s release, his opinions became widely accepted and promulgated as common knowledge. How clearly Drucker anticipated the leadership issues of the twenty-first century is truly amazing.

Drucker begins by stating, “Management books usually deal with managing people. The subject of this book is managing oneself for effectiveness. That one can truly manage other people is by no means adequately proven. But one can always manage oneself” (ix). Drucker suggests that management is largely carried out by example. In Drucker’s day, the terms management and leadership had not been sharply distinguished. To manage, for him, meant to lead. Interestingly, he notes, “I have not come across a single ‘natural’; an executive who was born effective. All the effective ones have had to learn to be effective . . . Effectiveness can be learned—and it also has to be learned” (ix).

Drucker suggests that effective executives do eight things (xi). He summarizes effectiveness this way: “Effective executives get the right things done” (xxi). He observes that the key to manual labor is doing things right. For executives, the key is to get the right things done. Warren Bennis would later popularize this distinction by saying managers do things right while leaders do the right things.

In Drucker’s day, the term “knowledge worker” was just coming into vogue, coinciding with the emergence of the computer. He suggests that knowledge workers cannot be supervised closely; they can only be helped (4). He notes that education is the great advantage of the USA, as it is the largest capital investment that is put into labor (5). Sadly, the educational system in the USA today no longer offers such an advantage. Drucker frequently makes comments in this book that encourage the reader to think. For example, he states that knowledge work is not measured by quantity but by results (7).

Drucker also notes that there are no results within an organization, only outside (15). Leaders often spend too much time focusing inwardly. But the key to growth is what happens outside the organization. He also notes that the truly important events on the outside are not trends but changes in trends (17).

Drucker purports that there is no effective personality. Effectiveness is a learned habit (21-22). He notes that effective executives do first things first (24). Stephen Covey popularized this idea in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Concerning time management, Drucker notes, “Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time” (26). He adds, “Nothing else, perhaps, distinguishes effective executives as much as their tender loving care of their time” (26). He also suggests that important work cannot be completed in 15-minute increments (29). He asserts that executives’ important work ought to be consigned to no smaller than one-hour time blocks. He notes that executives often waste time on unimportant tasks. He notes, “It is amazing how many things busy people are doing that never will be missed” (36). He adds, “I have yet to see an executive, regardless of rank or station, who could not consign something like a quarter of the demands on his time to the wastepaper basket without anyone noticing the disappearance” (37).

Drucker promotes healthy routines. He suggests that routine “makes unskilled people without judgment capable of doing what it took near-genius to do before” (41). He is also critical of meetings. He claims, “Meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization. For one either meets or one works” (44). Drucker makes numerous thought-provoking observations about organizations. He suggests that leadership is generally not effective top-down (65). He also notes that in an organization, a person’s weaknesses can be minimized and his strengths maximized (75). Of course, in unhealthy bureaucracies, one’s weaknesses are merely justified or never addressed.

I disagree with Drucker when he suggests that effective executives remain aloof from those they manage (78). This approach seems “old school” and not necessarily factual. He also suggests that any job in which three successive people have failed should be reorganized, as clearly the expectations are unreasonable (79). He suggests that job descriptions ought to be demanding and big (80). He also condemns the typical performance review that looks for weaknesses and problems (84). He suggests such reviews are “the wrong tool, in the wrong situation, for the wrong purpose” (84). Drucker asserts that executives should promote strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses.

Drucker places a strong emphasis on achieving results, for achieving results is an executive’s ultimate goal. While character and integrity are commendable qualities, Drucker notes that merely possessing such traits does not accomplish anything (87). He also insists that people who continually underperform must ultimately be released from their position. He observes, “Indeed, I have never seen anyone in a job for which he was inadequate who was not slowly being destroyed by the pressure and the strains, and who did not secretly pray for deliverance” (89).

Drucker touches on some subjects that others will later pick up and run with. For example, he includes a section entitled “How do I manage my boss?” (93). He also incorporates an interesting discussion on the difference between readers and listeners. He suggests that executives should deal with each type of person differently (94).

Drucker states, “The assertion that, ‘Somebody else will not let me do anything’ should always be suspected as a cover up for inertia” (96). I agree with Drucker; true leaders do not make excuses. They don’t blame others, even their superiors, for their lack of success. True leaders find a way to succeed.

One of Drucker’s mantras is “Feed the opportunities and starve the problems” (98). He recommends assigning the best people to possibilities, not problem solving. He asserts that when leaders perform well, their organization’s performance also rises (99). He further purports that people who accomplish nothing often work harder than other people (103). But they work hard at the wrong things.

This is another great quote from Drucker: “No one has much difficulty getting rid of total failures. They liquidate themselves. Yesterday’s successes, however, always linger on long beyond their productive life” (103). Many organizations have held onto aging, ineffective programs too long because they were effective in the distant past. He chides, “Everybody is much too busy on the tasks of yesterday” (108). Drucker argues that social organizations need to stay lean and muscular just as biological organisms do (107).

Drucker also observes, “As a rule, it is just as risky, just as arduous, and just as uncertain to do something small as it is to do something big that is new” (112). Drucker claims that making decisions is an executive’s primary work. Nevertheless, “effective executives do not make a great many decisions” (113). He notes, “Similarly, an executive who makes many decisions is both lazy and ineffectual” (129). Ironically, he states, “One of the most obvious facts of social and political life is the longevity of the temporary” (129).

Drucker makes numerous quotable statements. For example, he muses, “Reality never stands still for long” (142). He warns that “Events by themselves are not facts” (144). He points out that people tend to look for facts that support their conclusion rather than basing their conclusion on the facts (144).

I enjoy reading Drucker. To me, he is a leadership statesman. Some of his language is dated. He tends to talk about executives as being men. He also looks to the widespread use of computers and the internet as being in the future. Yet his predictions are amazingly accurate. He suggests that computers cannot replace thinking, and they may isolate us from the facts we need most.

Naturally, Drucker draws illustrations from his own time. He cites Alfred Sloan of GM as the best leader her ever met. He admires Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman but says JFK’s only true success was the Cuban missile crisis. Nonetheless, Drucker’s work on leadership is classic. The reader will often notice statements and principles in his work that later leadership writers expanded and popularized. Drucker tends to make definitive statements that sound extremely authoritative. They often are. Some, however, can be pushed back against and re-examined, especially since half a century has passed since he first wrote them.

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