A few weeks ago, Winston Churchill went digital. The former British Prime Minister's estate announced that it was launching its own iPhone (AAPL) app featuring Churchill's "wit and wisdom." A related website, along with Facebook and Twitter profiles, has also been set up. About the only thing missing, from what I can tell, is a link to the work of Peter Drucker.
Ties between the two men go way back. In May 1939, Churchill reviewed Drucker's first major book, The End of Economic Man, for The Times Literary Supplement, praising him as "one of those writers to whom almost anything can be forgiven because he not only has a mind of his own, but has a gift of starting other minds along a stimulating line of thought."
But even more than by pen, Churchill and Drucker seem to be connected by deed—at least in the eyes of one Churchill authority. Daniel Myers, chief operating officer of the Churchill Center in Chicago, has in recent years been delivering to business executives a lecture that examines the British leader's actions as "an executive success story." More specifically, Myers details how Churchill illustrated Drucker's eight rules for being an effective executive.
Myers came across these principles when Drucker laid them out in a 2004 Harvard Business Review article. "I read it and said 'Wow,' " recalls Myers, whose educational organization boasts 3,000 members worldwide. "It's pure Churchillian."
What Needs to Be Done?
The first practice of effective executives, Drucker wrote, is "to ask what needs to be done" as opposed to "What do I want to do?" This can't be a hollow gesture, either. "Taking the question seriously," Drucker advised, "is crucial for managerial success."
Myers recounts a number of stories that capture Churchill's embodiment of this trait, including his sending aid to Russia in 1941. Churchill had long been a bitter foe of the Communists, but the Germans had invaded Russia earlier that year and Churchill knew what the situation demanded. As Myers tells it: "When questioned by Jock Colville, his principal private secretary, on his apparent about-face, Churchill explained, 'If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.' "
Drucker's second rule for effective executives is to ask "What is right for the enterprise?" "They do not ask if it's right for the owners, the stock price, the employees, or the executives," Drucker added. That's because unless choices are made in the long-term interest of the organization, it will ultimately "not be right for any of the stakeholders."
Here, Myers cites a chapter from the eve of World War I, when Churchill served as head of the British Navy and the fleet was on maneuvers. Although his officers were clamoring to get back to their home port at Scapa Flow, Churchill kept them at sea and continued their training. "In everything Churchill did, he always asked 'What is right for the country?' " Myers says. In this case, "even his staunchest opponents begrudgingly admitted that the fleet was ready for war, thanks to Churchill."
Drucker's third rule for effectiveness: Develop action plans. The best executives, he said, "think about desired results, probable restraints, future revisions, check-in points." For Myers, at no time have these qualities been put to the test more than when Churchill in May 1940 was pressed by his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, and others in his cabinet to explore an armistice with Hitler.
Churchill rebuffed them all by laying out clear goals and expectations. "It was idle to think that if we tried to make peace now, we should get better terms from Germany than if we went on and fought it out," Churchill asserted. "Therefore, we shall go on and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere, and if at last this long island story of ours is to end, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground."
The next two things that effective executives do, according to Drucker, are to take responsibility for decisions and take responsibility for communicating. Regarding the former, Myers points to what many believe was Churchill's greatest blunder—his failed attempt during World War I, as Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty, to seize the Dardanelles in the eastern Mediterranean. "He never placed the blame on others," Myers says. As to the latter, Myers says that Churchill worked hard to ensure that he was being fully understood; even his quips were practiced and refined.
Drucker's sixth rule is to focus on opportunities rather than problems. "Above all," wrote Drucker, "effective executives treat change as an opportunity rather than a threat." Myers sees Churchill's early years, during which he had published five books and traveled the globe by the age of 26, as a wonderful example of this Drucker principle come to life.
The seventh rule is to run productive meetings—to make sure, as Drucker put it, that they "are work sessions rather than bull sessions." A big key to this, Drucker wrote, is good follow-up. Churchill was a master of this, Myers says, affixing to his most urgent memos bright red labels marked "Action this Day" to help drive his staff to results.
Finally, Drucker wrote, effective executives share one more characteristic: They think and say "we" rather than "I." So it was, says Myers, that Churchill refused to be knighted after his party's electoral defeat in 1945. "How can I accept the Order of the Garter," Churchill is said to have asked, "when the people have just given me the Order of the Boot?"
Two decades after that dour comment, Drucker would remember Churchill most fondly. He wrote that when the world was coming apart in the 1930s, "what Churchill gave was precisely what Europe needed: moral authority, belief in values, and faith in the rightness of rational action."
That quote from Drucker, it might be noted, is 134 characters—just perfect for a Churchill tweet.