Drucker's 8 Principles of Successful Leadership

Whether you're steering a team in business or on the battlefield, these lessons and principles are still the basis of effective leadership.

About thirty years ago, I initiated a study called the Combat Leadership Study. I was inspired to find the most challenging scenarios and leaders who were successful in those situations. This included management functions in business and other organizations.   

There are many challenging conditions for leadership of course: the hospital room, run-ins with danger in the street, emergencies at sea, an emergency in the air, or a heart attack.

There are police confrontations with hostages, or someone with a gun. But for an environment of leadership, it’s hard to beat the common challenges faced during combat on the battlefield.

 Battlefield Leadership Presents the Greatest Challenge 

As Peter F. Drucker, the founder of modern management, pointed out to me as a student, “In no other type of leadership must the leader make decisions based on less reliable information.”  

So, battle probably represents a “worst case” condition, the one I was seeking to identify. No wonder that even traditional motivators such as high pay, good benefits, and job security aren't much good or at least not fully effective. 

There is no “business as usual” on the battlefield. 

And in leading under terrible conditions, successful combat leaders build and lead organizations which get things done ethically, honestly, and for the most part under the circumstances, humanely.

Lessons that are still the basis of Leadership Success 

To do this study, I sought subjects who had not only led in battle, but also had gone on to demonstrate successful civilian careers in non-military activities as well. 

The foundation of my research was a survey sent to more than 200 former combat leaders and conversations with hundreds more. All had become successful in the corporate world or in other non-military organizations after leaving the armed forces. 

Among the responses I received in the initial phase, 62 were from generals and admirals. I asked these former combat leaders what they had learned from leadership in battle. 

I asked about the tactics they used, about the importance of their style and the most important actions a leader must take. I asked about adapting these lessons in their civilian careers. 

I discovered that approximately 95% of the responses I received boiled down to only eight principles. However, each of these leaders had seen one or more of these eight principles help them to achieve extraordinary results in their careers. More than a few wrote special notes or letters to express their support for my project. 

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Revisiting my research: from the battlefield to the business word

In a latter phase of my research, I interviewed other successful senior business leaders and reviewed dozens of corporate situations and the actions taken by these corporations’ senior leaders. 

Some had also combat experience in the armed forces. Most did not. Some had developed their own lists of principles of leadership over the years. 

While their lists differed from each other, they invariably included some version of the eight responses I had developed from my surveys. I also looked at 7,000 years of recorded history to confirm or to disprove these concepts in different settings. 

There was an abundance of evidence which supported most of the principles which I had uncovered from my first research with combat leaders, but when I found little or no confirmation, I dropped it from my list. 

General Ronald Fogleman, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force, wrote the foreward to my first book explaining the 8 universal laws. Many successful leaders wrote testimonials and allowed me to use them. 

These included those with military experience such as General H. Norman Schwarzkopf who had then recently led and been successful in the Gulf War and retired General and later Secretary of State Alexander Haig Jr., as well as Astronaut Colonel Frank Borman and former Marine Robert Lutz who was then vice chairman of the Chrysler Corporation. 

But there were also those who had no military experience, such as billionaire Bill Bartmann, Barry Gordon (former and longest serving of the Screen Actors Guild) and others. 

Bartmann, who made and lost several fortunes was once listed as the 25th wealthiest man in America, and right ahead of Ross Poirot who was number 26 in Forbes Magazine. 

I had a lengthy discussion about each law with Drucker which published in my first book, Drucker on Leadership (John Wiley and Sons, 2009). 

We had gone to what was his favorite Italian Restaurant in Claremont near where he taught, and over a spaghetti lunch I went over my research in some detail.

 1.      Integrity First

“You are entirely right and absolutely correct in listing this as your first law. A leader can be well-liked and popular and even competent and that’s all well and good, but if he lacks integrity of character he is not fit to be a leader.” 

Drucker once wrote: "Character is not something you can fool people about. The people with whom a person works, and especially subordinates, know in a few weeks whether he/she has integrity or not.”

“They may forgive a person for a great deal: incompetence, ignorance, insecurity or bad manners, but they will not forgive a lack of integrity." 

2.      Know Your Stuff

“This seems obvious, but some managers do try to cut corners rather than mastering the knowledge that they must have and that is essential to the quality of their performance.” 

Drucker wrote: “…leadership rests on being able to do something others cannot do at all or find difficult to do…“

 3.      Declare Your Expectations

“I’m uncertain what you mean by this. If you mean that a leader should declare his objectives, his mission --- by all means.”

 4.      Show Uncommon Commitment

“The failure of many is because they show no commitment, or commitment to the wrong goals. This gets back to your third law. Commitment comes from a worthy mission and then strong commitment.” 

Drucker wrote (referring to what nonprofits could teach business): “…nonprofit directors tend to have a personal commitment to the organization’s cause. Few people sit on a church vestry or a school board unless they deeply care about the religion or education” 

 5.      Expect Positive Results

 “There is a cautionary tale. One must not be a ‘Pollyanna.’ Still the central thought is correct. One cannot be negative and succeed in anything.” 

Drucker wrote: “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”

 6.      Take Care of Your People

“Many managers are failing to do this, and it will catch up with them.” 

Drucker wrote: “A leader has responsibility to his subordinates, to his associates.” 

 7.      Duty Before Self

This point requires some further definition. What I meant by this is that the leader had a duty to accomplish the mission and a duty to take care of those to who he or she was responsible. The leader’s own needs must come only after fulfilling of this duty. 

“This should be the basis of all leadership. The leader cannot act in one’s own interests. It must be in the interests of the customer and the worker. This is the great weakness of American management today.” 

Drucker wrote: “Douglas…built a team second to none because he put the task first…He was also unbelievably vain, with a tremendous contempt for humanity, because he was certain that no one came close to him in intelligence. Nevertheless, he forced himself in every single staff conference to start the presentation with the most junior officer. He did not allow anybody to interrupt.”

 8.      Get Out in Front

“Very true whereas junior leader or the CEO, the leader must be where the work is the most challenging. During World War I, the deaths among higher ranking officers was rare compared with those they caused by their incompetence. Too few generals were killed.” 

Drucker wrote: “…the human being himself determines what he contributes.”

 The Essence of Success

Bartmann had written: “You have discovered the essence of success. It will be mandatory reading for all of our managers because it will not only help them to become better leaders, but also enjoy a more successful life…” 

“…I realized that Bill was right. Those who I had surveyed had used them to become successful as leaders, but as Bill had said, they were the essence of success and clearly Drucker agreed.” 

* Adapted from the book Peter Drucker’s Way to the Top by William A. Cohen  to be published by LID, 2018, and syndicated.

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