Peter Drucker’s Favorite Leadership Book

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Doris Drucker, Peter Drucker’s widow, is 99 years young. She is bright, charming and energetic. She exercises with weights, plays a mean game of tennis and travels the world promoting Peter’s values and ideas. She has accomplished much in her own right and I consider her a good friend and wise mentor. Some months ago she was interviewed on video regarding what management books Peter read. She divulged an important secret. Though he read business magazines and newspapers extensively, he only skimmed most management books. He did read many books on history as he sought the lessons contained in them for managers.

There was one book on leadership, however, which Drucker not only read, but considered his favorite. Drucker wrote: "The first systematic book on leadership: the Kyropaidaia of Xenophon – himself no mean leader of men – is still the best book on the subject." Despite all the books published on leadership by well known academic researchers and successful CEOs, Drucker never altered his opinion. Xenophon was still the best. "The scores of books, papers and speeches on leadership in business enterprise that come out every year have little to say on the subject that was not already old when the Prophets spoke and Aeschylus wrote." Xenophon’s advice was still applicable for the modern business leader.

Who Was Xenophon?

Who was this Xenophon such that of those writing on leadership, "the Father of Modern Management" felt that his writings were the absolute best ever written on the subject? Originally Xenophon was a member of a 10,000 man Greek army hired by the Persian pretender to the throne, Cyrus the Younger, to defeat his brother in the fourth century B.C. At the time, the Greeks were considered the best infantrymen in the world. Cyrus thought that with these trained mercenary troops he could defeat his brother’s vastly superior force and seize the throne.

At first things went well, but in a crucial battle in Persia, Cyrus the Younger was killed. The Persians invited the Greek generals to a truce parley to discuss their withdrawal from Persia. All were to attend unarmed. However, this was a Persian trap. As soon as they had entered the Persian camp and were cut off from any support, they were all killed. The leaderless 10,000 Greeks were now stranded thousands of miles from home and surrounded by hostile forces. During a meeting to decide what to do, Xenophon was elected as one of the replacement generals and eventually the general-in-command. In The Persian Expedition, Xenophon tells the story of how he came to be overall commander and the fight to return to the Black Sea by these 10,000 Greeks against overwhelming odds. This march, one of the most famous in ancient history, took five months. It is a story of courage, improvisation and discipline, self-sacrifice and above all, leadership.

Inaction Worse Than No Action at All

After the Greek generals had been killed, there was considerable fear in the Greek camp. But no one took action. Xenophon was not a general. He wasn't even a senior Greek officer. All were just talking. They were fearful. In their hearts they knew that the Persians planned to attack them and sell the survivors into slavery, but they were afraid to admit it, even to themselves. Many wanted to meet with the Persians. They thought they could negotiate some sort of arrangement to save their lives. Finally, Xenophon asked himself: "What am I doing here doing nothing? What city is going to produce the general to take the right steps? Am I waiting to become a little older? If I don't take action, I'll never become older -- I'll be dead!" He stepped forward and told his comrades that they had no hope in trying to negotiate. He told them what needed to be done. He spoke convincingly and they elected him a general and overall commander.

This is a lesson for all of us, no matter our organization. There is never a reason for inaction whether there is an emergency or not. We must never take council of our fears, even when our fears are well-founded. We must take whatever action needs to be taken, even if difficult and hazardous. As the saying goes: "Don't just stand there, do something!" And Xenophon did. He took charge and convinced his fellow Greeks not to surrender or to trust the Persians who had already proven themselves untrustworthy by slaughtering their leaders under a flag of truce. Because Xenophon took action, they elected him overall commander.

Other Important Points

After becoming overall commander and creating subordinate generals, Xenophon called the new generals together and gave them some important instruction in leadership:

1. You set the example. If you are downhearted, your men will become cowards. If you yourselves are clearly prepared to meet the enemy and call on your soldiers to do their part, you can be sure they will try and be like you.

2. You need to hold yourself to be braver than the general mass of men, and to be the first to do hard work.

3. Be in control and exercise discipline, for when no one exercises control, nothing useful ever gets done.

4. Get your soldiers thinking about positive action each must take to be successful, otherwise they will think about "what is going to happen to me?"

When one soldier complained that he had to walk and carry a shield while Xenophon -- who was wearing heavy cavalry armor -- was mounted, Xenophon jumped from his horse, took the man's shield and pushed him out of the ranks. Xenophon led the pace and encouraged others while carrying the shield and while wearing the heavy cavalry breast plate as well. When the going was light, he led on horseback, but when the terrain was difficult or it was impossible to ride, he dismounted and led on foot from the front.

When some of his soldiers were disheartened because the Greeks had few cavalry while their enemies had many, Xenophon reminded them of something that centuries later, General George S. Patton told his army. "Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men."

Xenophon put it this way: "Ten thousand cavalry only amount to ten thousand men. No one has ever died in battle by being bitten or kicked by a horse; it is men who do whatever gets done in battle." The same can be said about any human endeavor -- it is men and women who get the job done and complete any project every time. So if your employees are despondent, or overly concerned about your lack of resources when compared with a competitor or with the situation they face, remember Xenophon -- it is people, not horses, that win battles, or market campaigns, political campaigns or anything else. This doesn't mean that resources or "horses" count for nothing -- but it does mean that they are not the deciding factor -- people are. You can be successful with reduced resources, but not without committed people.

Servant Leadership Recommended by Xenophon 2000 Years Ago

Cyrus the Great of Persia was an absolute monarch. Yet Xenophon wrote that he chose not to motivate primarily by the "carrot and stick" method. Cyrus’ father once asked Cyrus what he thought was the best way to motivate his followers. Cyrus answered: "After reflecting about these things, I think I see in all of them that which especially incites to obedience is the praising and honoring of one who obeys and the dishonoring of the one who disobeys."

Cyrus’ father agreed that this was the way to gain obedience by compulsion, but he told Cyrus that there was a far superior way in which human beings would obey and "with great pleasure." Moreover he told Cyrus that when people think that they will incur harm in obeying, they are not so ready to respond to the threat of punishments or to be seduced by gifts. However, this other method of attaining voluntary obedience worked even when there was danger. Cyrus’ father told him that the method wasn’t even very complicated. He only had to look after his subordinates better than they would take care of themselves and to ensure that he took care of them even before his own interests. Who would not want to follow and obey a leader who would look to one’s interest more than an individual would or could himself? Do you think that employees in any company might feel the same way and support a leader and an organization’s interests which did this?

Some of Drucker’s Thoughts on Xenophon

Of course there is much more in Xenophon and many more valuable lessons for corporate leaders. Xenophon practiced leadership in a different time and a different place and his leadership challenges were of a different type than those faced by most of us. Yet these concepts hold true in modern times. Drucker saw all this from his reading and study of these books. The basis of leadership about which Xenophon wrote, the lessons of his experiences, the principles or laws of integrity, commitment, duty and others are in no way altered by even the most recent research and writings about leadership. Whatever anyone’s leadership challenges as a leader in any type of organization, much can be learned from Drucker’s favorite book on leadership.

Adapted from Drucker on Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2010) and "Leadership Laws: It Was Drucker’s Favorite Book," Leadership Excellence, January 16, 2009.

For additional Drucker insight on military leadership, read "Personal Integrity, Its Risks and Consequences," on IQPC's site.