The Lessons of His Life
It may surprise even his most fervent admirers to learn that Peter Drucker, the world’s best-known business ‘guru,’ was also a novelist.
By Daniel Johnson
Peter F. Drucker was a true polymath. Having escaped the Nazis to America, he became a pioneer of management theory, a best-selling author and a beloved columnist for this newspaper. By the time of his death in 2005, Drucker was perhaps the world’s best-known business “guru”—although, as he disarmingly joked, “we are using the word ‘guru’ only because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit into a headline.”
Yet it may surprise even his most fervent admirers to learn that Drucker was also a novelist—and by no means a poor one. In the early 1980s, already well into his 70s, he embarked on a second career, producing two short fictional works in quick succession: “The Last of All Possible Worlds” and “The Temptation to Do Good.” They deserve to be read not just as curiosities of literature but as testimonies of their time. In these subtle evocations of the Europe into which he was born in 1909 and the America in which he made his career, Drucker distilled the lessons of his life.
One obvious comparison suggests itself: Ayn Rand. Like Drucker, she used fiction to convey a philosophy, and both authors were highly influential thinkers about the distinctive kind of capitalism created in their adoptive American homeland. But the contrasts are more striking. Rand’s individualistic ideology and her larger-than-life heroes John Galt and Howard Roark have no parallel in Drucker’s fiction. Her works are what Henry James called “large, loose, baggy monsters”; Drucker’s are models of brevity. “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead” are still selling copies in the millions. Drucker’s two novels went quickly out of print; happily, both have been republished in one inexpensive and charming volume.
“The Last of All Possible Worlds” is set in 1906, and the action takes place in Vienna and London. This is the pre-World War I world of Hermann Broch’s “The Sleepwalkers” or Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”—plus a dollop of Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now.” The reader is drawn into a web of individual stories that intersect but never quite merge into a single overarching narrative. This mosaic technique works well to illuminate the complex social and professional relationships of the cosmopolitan prewar Viennese upper classes from whose ranks Drucker emerged.
Friedrich Hayek once explained to me how imperial Vienna consisted of overlapping circles. The highest circles, the old aristocratic families, never mixed with Jews at all, let alone married them—unless the aristocrats were bankrupt. Then there were the newer but better educated families, who had risen through the civil service and the professions, such as medicine and banking. In these circles, to which the Catholic Hayeks belonged, Jews and Christians mixed socially and often intermarried—for example, he cited, the Wittgensteins, including his cousin Ludwig, the philosopher. Finally, there were Jewish circles that never socialized with gentiles; his case in point was the Freuds.
Hayek’s Viennese Venn diagram is vividly reflected in Drucker’s novel. The main characters are Prince Sobieski, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s ambassador in London; McGregor Hinton, an English banker and mathematician; and Julius von Mosenthal, his equally brilliant but more romantic Viennese banking partner. The three have divergent motivations and values, but they are united in devotion to two things: women and business. What plot there is revolves around the survival of the Bank of London and Austria, in which all three men are involved, amid dizzying dynastic and erotic intricacies. For the reader, though, the events are vitiated by the impending war that the characters hope to avert but that we know will come. Drucker’s message is not that their actions are in vain but that we must never give up.
Music and mathematics loom large in this world: Transcending time, they offer satisfactions that endure. Love, too, rewards, though it must contend with advancing years for supremacy. For, ultimately, the “last of all possible worlds” is old age, which offers fresh insights along with its frailties and regrets. To Rafaela, the octogenarian widow of a great bridge-building engineer, the cliché “you are only young once” is the opposite of the truth: “You are young many times,” she muses at the piano, “but you are old only once and only one way.”
Drucker’s second novel, “The Temptation to Do Good,” should perhaps be classified as a novella. The story revolves around a Midwestern Catholic university and its charismatic president, Father Heinz Zimmerman. Neither, it turns out, is as strong as appears nor as united with the other. On the contrary, no sooner does Zimmerman reveal his fallibility than the faculty turn on him and the outside world is gradually sucked into a “storm in a demitasse,” as one of Zimmerman’s friends calls it.
As the title suggests, the incident that exposes the narrow minds of academia is a gesture of kindness: Zimmerman pulls strings to find a job for a mediocre chemist who has been denied tenure and whose paranoid wife then begins making lewd accusations against her husband’s benefactor. As Zimmerman’s superior, Bishop O’Malley, observes: “His only offense is in having yielded to the temptation to do good and behave like a Christian and a priest rather than a bureaucrat.”
The fall of Zimmerman shows that acts of altruism are not risk-free—they present the kinds of dilemmas that also emerge in “The Last of All Possible Worlds” when McGregor Hinton saves the Bancroft Brothers bank from scandal for the sake of Elaine Bancroft, who despises him but with whom he has been in love for decades; or when Prince Sobieski’s adored but illegitimate daughter Henrietta begs him to obtain a promotion for her husband, a dimwitted officer. “A man of honor was supposed to do his duty, in this case, to intervene for his natural daughter—and then resign.”
Peter F. Drucker believed that in business one is constantly faced with moral choices. Hence management should be taught not as a pseudoscience but as a branch of the liberal arts. That he himself was a man of deep humanity, conscious that even the most calculating capitalist harbors the same desires, dreams and dread as the rest of us, emerges clearly from these two fascinating fictions.
Mr. Johnson is the editor of Standpoint, the London-based monthly magazine.
See the review online at wsj.com.