Yesterday was an exciting day for fans of the written word.
The Observer, a British newspaper, announced that editor Robert McCrum would be compiling a definitive list of the 100 best English-language nonfiction books of all time. His list will be released, bit by bit, starting January 31.
Last year, McCrum famously listed the 100 best novels of all time written in English. White-hot debate among bookworms commenced. Listing Moby-Dick (No. 17) below Edgar Allan Poe's only novel (No. 9) seemed particularly baffling. And many readers expressed displeasure at the list's lack of women authors. (Where were Willa Cather and Carson McCullers?)
Anticipating that McCrum's nonfiction list will be no less provocative, The Observer kicked off the fun yesterday by inviting readers to submit their own nominations. With their invitation in mind, here's my own personal nomination, a book whose influence has survived the test of time and transcended the nonfiction sub-genre of business. The Practice of Management by Peter Drucker (1954)
Of course, you could select many of Drucker's 39 books for this honor. Why this one? For one thing, it helped to define the art and science of what we now (almost nonchalantly) call "management." The how-to-do-this methodology of magazines like Inc. and the principles-first ethos of movements like Simon Sinek's Start With Why owe giant debts of gratitude to Drucker's 1954 classic.
You can find lists of all-time-great business books everywhere, but for my money, the most seminal one came out in 2001. It was called Most Influential Management Books of the 21st Century, and it was compiled by business school professors Arthur Bedeian and Daniel Wren, who were aiming to perform for business literature what McCrum aims to create for The Observer--that is, a straightforward list of the books that matter most. On Bedeian and Wren's list, The Practice of Management ranked third, behind only its genre-defining predecessors: Frederick W. Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) and Chester I. Barnard's The Functions of the Executive (1938).
As The Drucker Institute has noted, The Practice of Management was the first book "to organize the art and science of running an organization into an integrated body of knowledge." Previously, with the notable exceptions of Taylor and Barnard's works, business books were specialized by topic: finance, human resources, you name it. Drucker tied it all together, and in doing so, he helped give birth to the discipline of management.
What is more, he did his work as someone whose academic credentials made him acutely aware of the historical moment he was capturing, in attempting to create a whole new category of knowledge around the way organizations are run. He was not trained as a business specialist, per se. Few were, in those days. He had a PhD in law. His first book, The End of Economic Man (1939) prompted Winston Churchill to call Drucker "one of those writers to whom almost anything can be forgiven because he not only has a mind of his own, but has the gift of starting other minds along a stimulating line of thought." In the 1940s, Drucker was a professor of politics and philosophy at Bennington College. All of that was before he wrote The Practice of Management.
What makes Drucker's work stand out is the way he brings these numerous disciplines into any discussion of management. In fact, Drucker, drew many of his insights from English literature, including two authors--Charles Dickens and George Eliot--on the Observer's best 100 novels of all time list.
In his 1999 essay for the Atlantic, Beyond the Information Revolution, Drucker wrote: "Indeed, the 'crisis of the family' did not begin after the Second World War. It began with the Industrial Revolution--and was, in fact, a stock concern of those who opposed the Industrial Revolution and the factory system. (The best description of the divorce of work and family, and of its effect on both, is probably Charles Dickens's 1854 novel Hard Times.)"
You could look at Drucker's statement on work and family as ancient history. But you could also see echoes of it in the contemporary outcry over Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's ban on telecommuting. Work and family are still relevant subjects to managers--and here's Drucker referring to Dickens for examples.
In the same essay, Drucker noted: "The railroad was the truly revolutionary element of the Industrial Revolution, for not only did it create a new economic dimension but also it rapidly changed what I would call the mental geography. For the first time in history, human beings had true mobility. For the first time, the horizons of ordinary people expanded. Contemporaries immediately realized that a fundamental change in mentality had occurred. (A good account of this can be found in what is surely the best portrayal of the Industrial Revolution's society in transition, George Eliot's 1871 novel Middlemarch.)"
When Drucker wrote that in 1999, Clayton Christensen's notion of "disruptive" technology was just a few years old. Today, it's more relevant than ever: In the blink of an eye, all of us have experienced changes to our "mental geography," thanks to mobile devices and social media.
On top all this, Drucker's work continues to be relevant to contemporary executives. Within the past year, on the virtual pages of Inc., many present-day entrepreneurs have sung his praises, not just as an author or thinker, but as an all-around kind and passionate person. He balanced his life's work with his passions for teaching and his love of Japanese art. In the photo above, taken in 1980, he's at the Denver Art Museum, explaining Japanese scroll paintings to two patrons. He also, as it happens, wrote the introductory essay for the exhibition's catalog.
Moreover, in a recent survey of books recommended by Fortune 500 CEOs, The Practice of Management ranked 18th out of 50. Another Drucker title, The Effective Executive (1966) ranked seventh. The two Drucker titles are the only two pre-1980 books on the list, aside from the bible and Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations.
There's something appropriate in Drucker's placement alongside such salient classics. Here's hoping The Observer agrees.