The 50-Year-Old Business Book You Need to Read (or Reread) Right Now

Management philosopher Peter Drucker called out the five timeless practices of successful leaders in 'The Effective Executive' in 1967.


There aren't a lot of business books from a half-century ago that have stood the test of time, but Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive (Harper Business), now available in a spiffy new 50th Anniversary edition, is one of the select few. In 1967, back before Millennials were a gleam in their parents' eyes, Drucker declared, "The executive is, first of all, expected to get the right things done. And this is simply saying that he is expected to be effective."

Drucker is as relevant today as he was in the latter half of the last century because he approached the study of business like a surgeon. His clarity of thought and language was like a scalpel, which he used to dissect every aspect of management until he had revealed its essence. In The Effective Executive, Drucker applied that scalpel to leadership.

Drucker was convinced that leaders are made, not born. He described five practices that can make you a more effective leader:

1. Manage your time
"Time is the scarcest resource," wrote Drucker, "and unless it is managed, nothing else can be managed." Successful execs know how they spend their days, and they dismiss or delegate any activity that doesn't require their direct attention.

To identify the unnecessary time-sucks in your day, Drucker suggested jotting down everything you do in real time. Even better, these days you could get a time management app. Then, examine your activity entries and, for each one, ask yourself, "What would happen if this were not done at all?" If the answer is nothing (and it often will be, according to Drucker), stop doing it. If the task needs to be done, ask yourself if it could be done by somebody else. If so, delegate it. Repeat every few months to make sure you're still spending your time wisely.

2. Focus on contribution
Effective executives hold themselves "accountable for the performance of the whole," wrote Drucker. By that he meant that they weren't solely focused on their job performance or their own careers. Instead, the most effective leaders are team players who work hard to realize the strategic goals of their organizations.

To direct your focus to what you can do to maximize your contribution to your company, Drucker had some pithy advice. He said to start by "asking other people in the organization, [your] superiors, [your] subordinates, but above all, [your] colleagues in other areas: 'What contribution from me do you require to make your contribution to the organization?'"

3. Build on strengths
Drucker preached a strength-based approach to talent decades before it became a corporate buzzword. Effective executives drive team productivity and results, he wrote, by building on "available strengths--the strengths of associates, the strengths of the superior, and one's own strength."

Train yourself to focus on strengths instead of weaknesses by concentrating on what employees can do rather than what they can't do, advises Drucker. Seek out only the best-qualified people, instead of those who play well with others or who appear to have no flaws (they invariably do). And don't forget to apply this practice to yourself--identify your own strengths and use them to improve your performance.

4. Prioritize and concentrate
Long before we were all tethered to our smartphones, Drucker was warning leaders about the dangers of multitasking. He said that effective executives focus all their faculties on one achievement at a time. Why? "The more one can concentrate time, effort, and resources," Drucker wrote, "the greater the number and diversity of tasks one can actually perform."

To make the most of your concentrated effort, first prioritize your tasks. Prioritization is key, said Drucker, because if you're only working on one thing, you must make sure it's the right thing. "Effective executives do first things first," he wrote, "and they do one thing at a time."
5. Make decisions systematically

Finally, Drucker said that effective leaders make sound decisions--that means no on-the-fly calls or going with your gut. Sound decisions, he said, come from using a repeatable, consistent process with clearly defined elements executed in a distinct sequence.

How should you approach decision making? Drucker offered these tips:
Determine what kind of decision is required. If the issue is ongoing, you'll need to develop a policy; if it's a one-off situation, make the call and move on.

Define the decision's "boundary conditions"--that is, its objectives, minimum goals, and the conditions it must meet--before you make it.
Shoot for the ideal outcome to start. Save the inevitable compromises for later, when it's time to implement the decision.

Define the actions necessary to implement the decision in the decision.
Don't chisel your decisions in stone. Allow for post-implementation feedback and adapt the decision when needed.

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