originally posted elsewhere: October 21, 2004
tl;dr: Condensed brilliance, which may leave you wishing for more...
Peter Drucker has had a truly unique perspective and influence on the development of modern organizational management practices. He is old enough to have known Alfred Sloan of General Motors, and was a studious observer of the rise of the modern corporation, all the way through to its present most advanced state, the post-industrial knowledge-based corporation. Furthermore, Drucker has made major contributions over the decades to management theory and practice, through his books, teaching, consulting, and many articles in publications such as the Harvard Business Review. He has studied a broad span of management topics, from organizational behavior to individual behavior to the impact of organizations and businesses on society. He is even a bit of a futurist. So, who better to have one's life work collected into a single volume, to provide an overview of 20th century management theory?
The Essential Drucker is definitely worth reading, for anyone with a modicum of interest in organizational management. For someone like myself, with a good number of years in business, it served as an excellent refresher course and validated many of my own beliefs about management, and the teachings that I've received through other channels. Drucker's writings are the antithesis of faddish, flaky management theories; he advocates a very solid, non-flashy, heads-down, customer and results focused approach to management that also manages to be humane. There are so many nuggets of wisdom sprinkled throughout The Essential Drucker that I would not be doing justice to the book to highlight only a few of them. One impression that comes across strongly, reading thoughts that Drucker put to paper decades ago, is just how true and applicable they are today.
Having heaped much praise on Drucker and The Essential Drucker, I'm obligated to point out the book's major flaw, which is a function of the way it was put together. Drucker has produced so much writing on so many topics that it is perhaps an impossible task to condense the highlights into a single volume, and still retain anything close to the full force of his arguments. Reading The Essential Drucker, it appears that what most often was edited out (but not always, to be fair) was the evidence (anecdotal or otherwise) in support of his theories. You still get the theories and the declarative statements, but what is often missing is the supporting evidence and examples of the application of the theories, to provide a proper context. A veteran manager can supply these from one's own personal experience, as I was often able to do, but I feel that inexperienced readers, such as the students who Drucker claims are part of the target audience for The Essential Drucker, might struggle with the book.
Given that Drucker and his editor decided to make a single volume rather than two or three, The Essential Drucker is a worthwhile summary of a lifetime's work from a great management thinker, and a decent overall survey of 20th century management theory and practices.