A classic take on leadership

The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker, opens with an oddly specific and dated reference to Harry Truman. Not exactly the bread and butter of books on leadership. That’s when you realize Peter Drucker was born in 1909 and published his first business book in 1939 and that The Effective Executive was first published in 1967. And that it’s still read and relevant to this day. What has given this book its peculiar longevity?

If you are into books on business leadership or executive growth, you’ve almost certainly heard of Peter Drucker before. He revolutionized the way we think about business leadership across a long and distinguished career that spanned over half the 20th century. A lot of the ideas laid out in The Effective Executive can come off as cliched and obvious. But this is only because of how profoundly Drucker has influenced the culture. His once new ideas are now commonplace.

At the core of this book then is the idea that leaders are not born that way. You can train yourself to become a great leader, an effective executive. There are 8 practices of effective executives that he lays out in the introduction and around which the whole book is based. These are:

  • They asked, “What needs to be done?”
  • They asked, “What is right for the enterprise?”
  • They developed action plans.
  • They took responsibility for decisions.
  • They took responsibility for communicating.
  • They focused on opportunities rather than problems.
  • They ran productive meetings.
  • They thought and said “we” rather than “I.”

Just from this list, you can see how some of the ideas are more impactful than others. It’s not exactly a game-changer to be told that you should run more productive meetings. But the real essential executive practices are the ones regarding responsibility.

The executive must first and foremost take responsibility for himself and his own actions. You need to conduct performance reviews on yourself regularly to see how you are keeping up with your own goals and standards.

One method that Drucker particularly recommends is to make a time diary. At the start of your week, right out a prediction of how you think you’ll spend your time that week and then record how you actually do spend your time. Then compare. You’ll be surprised at the minutiae that drain away your most precious resource.

The executive must also take responsibility for their team. Delegating responsibility is one of your key responsibilities as a leader, so you need to know how to do it well. You shouldn’t ask team members to act outside of their skillset. You should be especially careful to avoid using delegation as a way to shirk your own responsibilities.

The executive has to have a clear vision of their own responsibilities and skills. Through the methods of self-criticism and performance review, you should know exactly what your tasks are and then pursue them with ruthless efficiency. Find out what you’re good at and do those things. Then clearly communicate to your team what they’re good at and assign responsibility accordingly. Drucker thus values trainable and flexible employees over the guy with an impressive resume and a chip on his shoulder.

The fact that the book was written in 1967 will occasionally rear its head through a dated reference or the somewhat stodgy prose. But Drucker has a lot of insight, and the book’s core ideas transcend the more dated elements. The Effective Executive has been read and studied for over half a century now because it presents a strong foundation for learning how to improve your leadership skills and take your career to the next level.

The Effective Executive is available for purchase here.

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