What is a social ecologist, anyway?

Drucker mastered the study of how humans interact with their environments. That’s why great leaders should learn from him, writes William A. Cohen

Sometimes it is easier to define people by what they are not. Peter Drucker was often billed as the “world’s greatest independent consultant”. But he was not a professional consultant. He argued that his consultancy work was integrated into his writing and teaching, and that consulting was not his profession. Nor, for that matter, were writing or teaching. He was a neither a consultant nor a professor. Nor was he a management author. What Peter Drucker was was a “social ecologist”.

Social ecology is the very essence of management and leadership. Just an ecologist investigates the interactions between organisms and their environments, a social ecologist is one who studies and investigates human interactions and their environments. Drucker rarely used the term scientist to describe his work, but that’s effectively what he was: a scientist who investigates human behaviour in context of their surroundings.

Three reasons why Drucker was a scientist:

1. He reported based on the evidence, not on what companies wanted to hear

Drucker’s The Concept of the Corporation was not a “how to do consulting” book. It examined much about General Motors’ multi divisional structure and also suggested some new ideas, decentralization being one, and a re-examination of GM’s long-standing policies in all areas. According to Drucker, GM chief executive Alfred Sloan was so upset about the book that he “simply treated it as if it did not exist, never mentioning it and never allowing it to be mentioned in his presence.”

In any case, this particular consulting portal led to a ton of extra consulting work, speaking appointments and a lot more. This is a key lesson for anyone wishing to follow in Drucker’s footsteps: strive for incisive, accurate analysis and you will be rewarded eventually – even if the subject of the analysis finds it uncomfortable.

2. He resisted pressure to become a brand

McKinsey, the largest consulting firm in the world with 9,000 consultants worldwide was started by a former University of Chicago accounting professor, James O. McKinsey in 1926. Its biggest growth was under Martin Bower, who occupied a cubicle next to Drucker’s during their work as US government management consultants during World War II. Bower and Drucker were friends, but Drucker did not follow Bower’s lead to build a worldwide consulting organization.

Call Drucker’s telephone number and you didn’t get a receptionist or a secretary unless you dialled his university.In his consulting practice, which was out of his home, he had neither. He even answered the phone himself, unless he was occupied and you heard the voice of his wife, Doris. Drucker lived until 2005 – well into the digital age.

However, there was never a Drucker website either. If you wanted Drucker, you either were his student, a client, or looked him up in the phone book. He probably turned away more potential clients than he accepted. But remember, Drucker was NOT primarily a consultant, even though he could probably have claimed the title of “the king of independent consultants”. He was primarily a scientist, a social ecologist. After his death in 2005, there remains no legacy “Drucker Consulting Group” or “Drucker and Associates,” or “Drucker LLP or Ltd”. Nor were there any when he was alive.

3. He craved recognition, not wealth

Since Drucker clearly thought of himself as a scientist, like many scientists of his generation, he never coveted riches. Instead of billing his clients $10,000 a day, he required that they donate $10,000 a day to his foundation. He lived in a modest house in Claremont, California. He drove a relatively inexpensive car. He mowed his own lawn. He did not wear $1,000 suits or expensive watches and his shoes were neither high fashion nor of high value. He acted exactly the way he lived.

Adapted from Drucker on Consulting (LID Publishing)