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Lessons From Peter Drucker

You Have No Limits

Posted: 04/26/2017
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How many times have I heard experts say something can’t be done? It must have been a million times.

A little more than eight years ago, I was a guest on the USS Sequoia, a former presidential yacht, for a cruise up the Potomac River. During the cruise, I had a discussion with Diane Watson, a Democratic Congresswoman and former Ambassador to Micronesia, about a new rising political figure, Barack Obama.

At the time, I had heard little about him. Ambassador Watson told me: “Barack Obama is a wonderful man, and he’ll be president one year, but not this year. This is Hillary’s year.”

Echoing the same sentiments: Last year we heard scores of news commentators and pundits from both parties say that Donald Trump could not be elected to the presidency. Well, it happened.

Many had bleak outlooks on Obama and Trump’s chance at winning their respective elections. Yet, both succeeded in reaching their goals against incredible odds and countless naysayers. If either believed in limits based on anything, I doubt whether either would have become a candidate, much less president.

Sinatra Was Right

The point has to do with an old Frank Sinatra song called “High Hopes.” The song details two scenarios where first an ant and then a ram reach seemingly impossible goals.

First, an ant moves a rubber tree all by itself, then a ram destroys a billion-dollar dam. These impossible goals are achieved because of the power and strength of the goals and the high hopes of the characters.

As reported in the words of the song: “Whoops! There goes another rubber tree plant.”

Drucker supported this idea. Even past failure does not mean future failure, nor does it mean that you or anyone else has reached any limit of competency in their careers.

The clear lesson is that people have no limits, and this was Drucker’s argument against The Peter Principle, which claims people rise to their limits of competency and no further limits.

Drucker on The Peter Principle

Drucker objected to several facets of The Peter Principle and believed the whole idea was overly simplistic. He didn’t contest the fact that many failed as they moved into successively higher levels of an organization.

He thought that this was a tremendous waste, much of which could be avoided by the individual himself through proper training of his own or with the help of the organization.

He agreed with Lawrence Peter that more thoughtful placement and promotion could prevent this workplace issue. However, he also felt that the rise of analytical and problem-solving jobs (what Drucker called “knowledge workers”) would lead to more managers being appointed to positions in which they failed to perform due to developing technology.

Because it is at times difficult to measure performance for knowledge-workers, the transfer of knowledge-working skills to new assignments is at times more challenging and nothing guarantees success or foretells failure. In some cases, past failures lead to future success.

A Few Examples 

Rowland Hussey Macy studied business, graduated, and then opened a retail store. It failed. He started another. It failed too. This happened four times, and he failed at each attempt. If he considered these limits and abandoned further work, we would have never heard of him.

However, Macy’s fifth attempt did succeed—even though his efforts brought in only $11.08 in sales on the first day. Still, Macy died a wealthy man.  

More than 150 years later, Macy’s still exists with more than 700 stores. Sure it suffered the recession, but its longevity is an impressive legacy for someone who seemed incompetent four times before having an overwhelming success.

Another example? Winston Churchill should have abandoned politics. Some still argue the point, and Churchill himself maintained that his biggest failure would have been worth the cost in resources and human flesh if the WWI Allies had maintained the fight just a little bit longer.

He maintained that final success would have shortened the war and saved a million casualties. 

As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill succeeded in convincing the British War Cabinet to undertake the biggest allied disaster of the war, the Dardanelles Campaign, including an allied landing at Gallipoli.

This resulted in the worst allied defeat of the entire conflict, with over 200,000 casualties. Churchill was forced to resign as First Lord of the Admiralty and he was forced into a much lower position as a front-line officer.

Once having commanded admirals, generals, and field marshals as First Lord, he served in the front lines in France as a lieutenant colonel. He shared all dangers. His hut mate in the trenches was blown apart during an artillery barrage.

Churchill himself became a successful combat officer and survived the war. But he failed miserably in his top job as Sea Lord.

Yet the same man, with much higher responsibilities, again, as Prime Minister during World War II saved England and possibly the world as Britain stood largely alone for nearly a year against Hitler and his minions before other forces joined them.

Moreover, this one-time “incompetent” leader is now considered the greatest British political figure of the 20th century, and maybe of all time. Clearly, he had no limits.

Certainly, one of the most hierarchal of organizations is the military. But did you know that none other than General Colin Powell would have easily been classified as having risen to his level of incompetency?

As a one-star brigadier general, he had displeased his boss at a critical time and made two serious mistakes. Thus, his two-star boss gave him a mediocre effectiveness report.

Since only 50% of brigadier generals went on to promotion to two-stars (major general) Powell was certain that he knew which 50% he would be in. His career would have been at an end. I 

Powell’s previous record of outstanding performance and accomplishments earned him his second star. And of course, later he was promoted to three and then four-star positions and eventually he became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. military’s highest-ranking officer. 

Politicians are obvious examples confirming my point. Ronald Reagan was defeated twice as Republican nominee. He finally succeeded on his third attempt.  

Abraham Lincoln failed at just about everything. He failed in business, ran for the Illinois state legislature and was defeated, went into business again and went bankrupt, ran for speaker and was defeated, lost a nomination to Congress, was rejected for an appointment for the U.S. Land Office, was defeated in a U.S. Senate race, and two years later defeated again in a nomination for vice president. 

Then, in the 1860s, he became our 16th President and saved the Union. To the best of my knowledge, not even his detractors, and certainly not historians, call him incompetent. No limits!

 This post has been adapted from Peter Drucker on Consulting (LID, 2016)