Leadership Lessons from Peter F. Drucker (1919-2005)

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Lovett H. Weems, Jr., writes about the influence of Peter Drucker. Weems has found that many of Drucker’s ideas apply to pastoral ministry.


Peter Drucker, who died in November, was often called the world’s most influential management thinker. Over sixty-six years, he wrote more than three dozen books that have been translated into thirty languages. They shaped the thinking of business leaders at all levels of responsibility. In his later years, he gave considerable attention to the nonprofit sector, including churches. Many of his ideas have proven very helpful to church leaders.

Key Questions

Drucker was skilled in the art of asking key questions. His classic and most quoted questions were:

  • What is our business?
  • Who is our customer?
  • What does our customer consider valuable?

Later Drucker offered another set of simple and helpful planning questions:

  • What is our mission?
  • What are the results we seek?
  • Are we accomplishing those results?

Focus on Results

Leaders are responsible for the performance of the organizations they lead. Therefore, leaders rigorously focus on results. Drucker says effective leaders focus on the “contribution” they most need to make. Nonprofit organizations tend to focus more on motivations for and methods of doing things, with little attention to what is actually accomplished. Drucker reminds us that it is important for nonprofit organizations to “define the bottom line when there is no bottom line.” Obviously the various ministries of the church intend some results. What are they? What are we trying to do? What changes do we hope will result from our efforts? Are we achieving those results? By beginning with the end in sight, organizations can align their resources to best achieve the identified results. Performance is the ultimate test for an organization, according to Drucker. But he acknowledged how difficult such thinking is for nonprofit organizations.

Build on Strengths and Focus on Opportunities

Drucker stressed that leaders should build on their strengths and manage their weaknesses. The same principle holds true within organizations. Often leaders focus on problems. Problems cannot be ignored. But to bring about change, leaders must focus on opportunities. They have to “starve problems and feed opportunities.” The best opportunity for successful change is to build on strength and success.

Co-workers Deserve Feedback

Everyone has a right to know how they are doing in the performance of their responsibilities. Some questions Drucker suggested for use by supervisors with their co-workers were:

  • What is your task?
  • What should it be?
  • What should you be expected to contribute?
  • What hampers you in doing your task and should be eliminated?

Creative Abandonment

Drucker uses the phrase “creative abandonment” to describe the process by which people and organizations determine what they should stop doing. In most organizations new programs simply get added on to everything else currently being done. Hardly ever do people stop to ask “what function will be discontinued to make room for the new effort?” They seem to assume new undertakings can be accomplished without undermining current programs or diluting the focus of the organization.

For a time, this process can be sustained. Over the long term, however, the proliferation of new endeavors without questioning ongoing efforts creates unhealthy results; because any organization has a limited amount of time, energy, and resources. Therefore, it is crucial to make judgments constantly regarding how resources will be utilized to fulfill the mission.

“Creative abandonment” provides the opportunity to ask periodically, “What can we stop doing without compromising our mission?” When people are allowed to brainstorm about such possibilities, many good ideas emerge. After reviewing the implications and impact, stopping some things will turn out to be quite workable. Many of the things may seem to be small, but remember every activity takes time, energy, and resources which cannot be devoted to other efforts.

The Importance of People and Mission

Drucker realized the world is moving away from top-down command and control structures of leadership toward participation, partnerships, and collaboration among all persons in an organization. He encouraged leaders to set high goals for their co-workers but then give people freedom to achieve those goals in a way that works for them. He always knew that organizations are living and breathing “organisms” when they function well. Organizations are inherently social. They make possible results no individuals could accomplish alone. Just as people need to be true to themselves, so organizations must always be true to their purposes. To Drucker, the challenge for churches was never to be more “business-like,” but to be more “church-like” — true to their God-given missions and accomplishing those results so needed in our world.


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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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