You as a leader

Brendan Calder, chairman of Coventree Inc and Adjunct Professor of Strategic Management at the Rotman School of Management,  recently invited me to talk to a group of 26 students at the Rotman School.  The topic was: Is Peter F. Drucker relevant?

In answering that question, I chose to create a dialogue around sections of a letter Peter wrote in 1974.  By the end of my talk, virtually everyone in the room said, “yes.  Peter F. Drucker is relevant to me today.

Let me share with you the excerpts drawn from Peter’s 1974 letter. First, a bit of background. Peter was asked if he thought Robert McNamara would make a good president of the World Bank. Robert McNamara had been one of the wiz kids serving in the combat analysis group during WWII, went on to become President of The Ford Motor Company, and then Secretary of Defense for President Kennedy. As you read Peter’s excerpts on his sense of McNamara’s personal and leadership strengths and weaknesses,  think about yourself as a leader, how you might score on the characteristics discussed, and the reasons for your score.

Peter wrote:

“To me, the greatest strength of McNamara as a person is that he inspired admiration.”

But Peter continued:

“… his greatest weakness is that he did not inspire trust.”

Do you inspire admiration from your colleagues and others in and beyond your organization?   Do you inspire trust? Why or why not?

Peter F. Drucker wrote:

“The greatest strength of McNamara as an administrator was his ability and willingness to pick the very strongest people as members of his team. McNamara’s greatest weakness as an administrator was that he had not the faintest idea how to make use of the strengths of his team, or even how to make a team out of them.”

Do you pick truly strong people to join your team, even when their strengths may exceed your own? Do you encourage and fully leverage team work? Do you and your team members help make one another and hence, the collective team stronger (i.e., leverage each other’s strengths while making each other’s weaknesses irrelevant)?

Peter continued:

“McNamara’s greatest strength as a manager was his realization of the need to think through strategy. His greatest weakness was that he always got caught up then in the minor points and the strategy became secondary to the way in which this or that specific “urgency” of the moment was being done.

McNamara lost one objective after the other by dictating how something should be done instead of saying ‘this is what we are going to do, you work out how to get there.”

Do you value strategy? Can you communicate strategy effectively and in an engaging manner to your organization and other stakeholders?  Are you able to stay true to your strategic objectives versus the flavor of the month?  Are you an effective delegator, leaving the job of translating strategy into action and tactical to others?   Do you track your results against strategic objectives?

Peter went on to say:

“McNamara’s great strength as a leader was his realization that he had a role to play.  His great, and I think ultimately self-destructive weakness was that he confused leadership with morality. Anyone who did not agree was an “enemy”, and clearly had to be damaged, destroyed, or at least humiliated – and McNamara’s willingness to humiliate people was, and is, I think, his one great character weakness and a very serious one.

He never learned to use disagreement as a source of understanding and conflict as a management tool. And this is the reason why, in the last result, I believe, he was a failure as Secretary of Defense, just as I think he is a failure now as head of the World Bank.”

Can you easily and clearly articulate your role as a leader in your organization? Do you view your role as meaningful to and well-understood by your organization and other stakeholders?  Are you a good listener?  Do you encourage or discourage dissenting views and do you view conflict situations as an opportunity to learn?  When was the last time that you publicly dressed someone down?

Fundamental to much of this letter is what I consider to be Peter F. Drucker’s most valuable contribution to management thinking – namely that the critical role of a leader is to ask the right questions, make sure the organization understands why the questions are important and what the honest answers are, respect people and manage for results.  The letter Peter F. Drucker wrote in 1974 is relevant to every leader today.


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