Under my byline

Lessons from a bystander

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 4 March 2009

P F Drucker, Adventures of a BystanderOVERLEAF 19

A depression should be full of inspiring stories. But this one isn’t — there’s only misery on the wires. And that’s not right, because it’s during a serious downturn that the optimists, or at least the well-oiled pragmatists, stand out and shine.

Consider the good that came of the Great Depression. The present American state and its choice of responsibilities grew out of that crisis, and then it grew to influence other governments across the world. And the Depression electrified the imagination. It offered writers an amplitude of new subjects, characters and conflicts. Depressions are bad for wage-earners, but they are good for some businessmen and some artists.

Meet Peter F Drucker, the “father” of modern management. This year is the centenary of his birth. In the last chapter of his finest book (I haven’t read his 38 other books, but I am confident in my judgment), the autobiographical Adventures of a Bystander (1979), he writes of coming to America in the 1930s. The chapter is titled “The Indian Summer of Innocence”, and in it he describes the camaraderie and will-do spirit of ordinary Americans — a glorious, brief state of mind and society which lasted until World War II began.

“Depression America was not tactful,” he says. “It was not refined. It could be dreadfully smug. But it was free from envy; anyone’s success was everyone’s success and a blow against the common enemy. Depression America encouraged, cheered on, helped.” It was also abundant in new ideas, and arguments which in Europe were considered long settled: the idea of the university, for example, and the purpose of higher education.

For a European coming out of the prolonged European gloom of the 1920s and 1930s, and the shadow of fascism, this was highly invigorating. Drucker had done well even in Europe, in journalism and in banking (he hadn’t bothered with university, then no more than a civilised indulgence). He started with not a few advantages. Chief among them was that, born in Vienna to an upper-class family of educated intellectuals, as a boy and young man Drucker met and got to know some of the most important men and women of his time — important not in political terms but in terms of their ideas, ideals and work.

Most you will not have heard of, including Hemme and Genia Schwarzwald: the financial genius who kept Austria afloat during the Great War and the tough organiser who set up and ran a university-prep school for women and soup kitchens for those impoverished by the war. Or Miss Elsa and Miss Sophy: the spinster schoolteachers whose completely different yet equally effective teaching methods gave Drucker his lifelong interest in great teachers of all types.

And: Drucker’s grandmother, whose refrain, “I am only a stupid old woman,” followed apparently senile but in fact utterly sensible actions, such as the fact that she equipped herself with four national passports. The family laughed and shook their heads, but Drucker realised that she had understood instinctively that when “papers” are essential, you can’t have too many papers. The grandmother travelled unhindered.

From these three, Drucker learnt the importance of personal integrity and useful work; that intellect must be cultivated; that from great teachers, no matter what they teach, one can learn; and that only a fool neglects insight from an unexpected source.

Those lessons were extended and rounded out by other individuals Drucker met, worked with or was influenced by. For this is an autobiography through biographies. Others who appear include Sigmund Freud, Karl Polanyi and his family, “The Monster” (a Nazi), a clutch of brilliant but eccentric European bankers and businessmen, “the man who invented Kissinger”, Henry Luce, Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan, and Alfred Sloan of GM. You will find these stories nowhere else.

Drucker writes as if he were a lucky bystander (hence the disarming title), but to me he is the star. It is Drucker who was always ready to learn, and who not merely saw but remembered and applied. If others were great teachers, Drucker was the great student. Fiction often makes me impatient, but this book, full of its wonderful and true stories, is at once enthralling, satisfying and useful. It should be made prescribed reading at MBA schools, to offset the tunnel-vision of “case studies”.

Because the current slowdown is relatively mild, there is no universal sense of shared crisis, nor any unusual hunger for fresh ideas in any field. The expectation is of imminent normality. But the need is there, and Drucker offers a way to locate and trigger that appetite for change.

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