On Leadership: What Makes an Effective Executive?

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by Peter F. Drucker

An easy read full of simple truths that are challenging to implement. The article puts forth eight practices as critical guideposts that all executives must respect in order to be effective. The practices are as follows:

1) They asked, “What needs to be done?”
2) They asked, “What is right for the enterprise?”
3) They developed action plans.
4) They took responsibility for decisions.
5) They took responsibility for communicating.
6) They were focused on opportunities rather than problems.
7) They ran productive meetings.
8) They thought and said “we” rather than “I”.
The article proceeds by discussing each of the aforementioned practices and lends itself to questions like the following:

  • What is the typical number of tasks that struggling leaders attempt to manage simultaneously (in comparison to effective executives who focus on one or two items and then re-evaluate overall priorities once those issues are addressed)?
    •How does a leader realize that s/he isn’t skilled or effective in a particular area when his or her position inhibits genuine feedback (unless concerted effort has been expended to create a safe culture)?
    •If leaders themselves are often bombarded with useless information, how do they insure that they are not doing the same thing – disseminating information that workers don’t need, can’t use or don’t understand well enough to be meaningful?
  • How often do organizations actually take responsibility for such personnel failures? As part of the discussion for practice five, the following information is presented:

A review is especially important for the most crucial and most difficult of all decisions, the ones about hiring or promoting people. Studies of decisions about people show that only one-third of such choices turn out to be truly successful. One-third are likely to be draws – neither successes nor outright failures. And one-third are failures, pure and simple. Effective executives know this and check up on the results of their people decisions. If they find that a decision has not had the desired results, they don’t conclude that the person has not performed. They conclude, instead that they themselves made a mistake.

While most of the suggested practices and ensuing discussions seemed to focus on strategy, practice number six seems to be a function of perspective rather than a strategy. Focusing on opportunities does not mean minimizing problems; however, the difference can be described at hindsight versus innovation. While house-keeping, so-to-speak, is important, organizations can lose the strategic advantages of timing when they foster a culture that positions focusing on problems higher than vetting present opportunities. In many ways, practice six highlights the distinctions between management and leadership as put forth in What Leaders Really Do by John Kotter wherein Kotter suggests that leaders deal with risk and the uncertainty associated with risk whereas managers focus on efficiency and problem-solving. Finally, Drucker suggests that leaders delegate those functions that they don’t do well; but can perspective be delegated? If a leader sees the business in terms of problems before seeing opportunities, is s/he a really a manager wearing a leader’s suit?

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