Peter Drucker’s Leadership Observations Are Still True Today


“Leadership Is Responsibility.” That is the title of the April 8 chapter in the book The Daily Drucker: 366 Days of Insight and Motivation for Getting the Right Things Done. Published in 2004, the book is a collection of writings by Peter Drucker (1909-2005), who was considered the top management thinker of his time. The wonderful thing about writing is that while the person is not with us physically, their gifts remain to be opened and continually rediscovered. The Daily Drucker is one of those gifts.

In explaining leadership, Mr. Drucker wrote, “All the effective leaders I have encountered—both those I worked with or merely watched—know four simple things: a leader is someone who has followers; popularity is not leadership, results are; leaders are highly visible, they set examples; leadership is not rank, privilege, titles, or money, it is responsibility.”

Mr. Drucker then shared a lesson he learned in high school when his class was studying World War I. All studies showed that WWI was a war of total incompetence. Why? The conclusion was that the generals stayed way behind the lines and let others do the fighting and dying. Effective leaders delegate, but they do not delegate the one thing that will set the standards for followers. They do it themselves.

Mr. Drucker’s action point is this: Don’t expect to retain the respect of your employees if you completely delegate the central function of your enterprise, whether that is healing patients or selling bonds.

While written many years ago, much in Mr. Drucker’s books is so relevant today. Dr. Katherine Meese and I are writing the book The Human Margin. We are utilizing recent research on employee engagement to provide suggestions on how to attain and retain great employees. A theme in our book is that things have changed since the pandemic. While an employee’s relationship with their direct supervisor is important, it’s not as vital as feeling there is trust in and organizational support from senior leadership.

As Mr. Drucker wrote, leaders are highly visible. My experience is that those senior leaders who stayed visible during the pandemic have built trust. In healthcare, those senior leaders in hospitals who were not in a clinical role yet who gowned up and joined clinicians and other staff on the units had a great impact. This also supports the research on whether top leaders know what frontline people are experiencing. Those leaders who had many locations and could not be as visible as they wished, often stayed connected via video and in other ways, which was also effective.

Another key point Mr. Drucker identified is that popularity is not leadership. One big change the pandemic brought about is the widespread acceptance of working virtually. This is one item that is very dependent on the organization. In some roles, it’s possible to work virtually, while in other roles, it is not possible. In cases where a company has both types of roles, a we/they culture can develop. There is not a perfect answer. What will make a leader popular with some people will not make them popular with others. The question is, what will help achieve the best overall results for the organization? Of course this must be balanced with a sincere effort to be as fair as possible with everyone.

When I meet with frontline folks, I ask them who works for someone they consider a good leader. I also ask what makes that person a good leader. Here are the top responses:

The leader is approachable. In employee engagement survey results, a statement to pay close attention to is, “I am comfortable sharing concerns with my supervisor.” Approachability is so beneficial. People may bring ideas on improvement and so forth, which demonstrates ownership. TIP: Be careful not to respond with, “We already thought of that.” It shuts down input. Also, if an idea is not doable, it is important in turning it down that we do not turn off the employee.

After approachability comes, They don’t ask me to do anything they are not willing to do themselves. The most effective leaders are those “roll up the sleeves” leaders. This was so evident during the pandemic. People notice those who do and those who don’t.

The next one is closely related to the previous one: My leader is willing to work shoulder to shoulder with me.

All of these connect back to the April 8 writing in The Daily Drucker. When leaders are approachable, willing to do the work themselves, and willing to work shoulder to shoulder with employees, it creates followers and visibility, it sets an example, it is not about rank, and it achieves results.

Providing learning opportunities for all in an organization is more important than ever. While virtual learning can be very effective and valuable, it is great to see in-person sessions back. I was fortunate to spend the morning with a large group from the National HealthCare Corporation. Yes, virtual learning is valuable and sometimes the best option available. However, there is an energy that comes about when people are physically together.

Let’s keep ourselves replenished so we can replenish others.

Quint Studer
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Quint Studer’s Wall Street Journal bestseller, The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive, is filled with tips, tactics, and need-to-know insights. It functions as a desk reference, pocket guide, and training manual for anyone in a leadership position. His newest book, The Calling: Why Healthcare Is So Special, is aimed at helping healthcare professionals keep their sense of passion and purpose high.

Quint is the co-founder of Healthcare Plus Solutions Group, a consulting firm that specializes in delivering customized solutions to diagnose and treat healthcare organizations’ most urgent pain points. He also serves as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of West Florida, Executive-in-Residence at George Washington University, and Lecturer at Cornell University.