Managing Oneself by Peter Drucker: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Managing Oneself by Peter F. Drucker.

In short

Managing Oneself is Peter Drucker at his best. It’s concise, relatable, and full of good advice and insight. This short book, which was originally an article, discusses how to find your key strengths, understanding how you perform and what your value system is.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.

Knowing your strengths

Throughout history, people had little need to know their strengths. A person was born into a position and a line of work: The peasant’s son would also be a peasant; the artisan’s daughter, and artisan’s wife; and so on. But now people have choices. We need to know our strengths in order to know where we belong.”

The best to know your strengths is by doing a feedback analysis. This means: recording the steps or decisions you took, what you expected to happen, and then reflecting a year or so later to see what happened. What did you do well (your strengths) and what not?

Following this, Drucker advises to:

  • Concentrate on your strengths. Put yourself in positions where you can play into your strengths.
  • Try to improve your strengths – there are always gaps in your skills or knowledge.
  • Avoid intellectual arrogance. If someone is an expert in one field they often have a tendency to overestimate their skills in others. Drucker calls this the “believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.”

How do I perform?

Perhaps even more important than knowing your strengths, is to figure out how you perform. Meaning: in what situations, in which type of work, et cetera.

There are a few common (personality) traits that determine performance:

  • Am I a reader or a listener?
  • How do I learn? (by doing, by writing, by talking, et cetera)
  • Do I work best alone or in a team?
  • Am I a coach or a mentor, or not at all?
  • Do I produce results as a decision maker or as an advisor?
  • Do I perform under stress, or do I need a structured environment?
  • Do I perform best in big organizations, or small ones?

“Some people work best as subordinates, General George Patton, the great American military hero of World War II, is a prime example. Patton was America’s top troop commander. Yet when he was proposed for an independent command, General George Marshall, the U.S. chief of staff – and probably the most successful picker of men in U.S. history – said, “Patton is the best subordinate the American army has ever produced, but he would be the worst commander.””

Also, a large number of people work better as advisors than decision makers. At the same time, decision makers often require advisors to make them think and to take the best decisions. This is why a number two in the organization does not always succeed when promoted to the number one position – they use different skill sets and have different personalities.

The Mirror Test

“In the early years of this century, the most highly respected diplomat of all the great powers was the German ambassador in London. He was clearly destined for great things – to become his country’s foreign minister, at least, if not its federal chancellor. Yet in 1906 he abruptly resigned rather than preside over a dinner given by the diplomatic corps for Edward VII. The king was a notorious womanizer and made it clear what kind of dinner he wanted. The ambassador is reported to have said, “I refuse to see a pimp in the mirror in the morning when I shave.””

This is what Drucker calls the mirror test: when you look in the mirror in the morning what kind of person do you want to see?

If you work in an organization with a value system that is unacceptable for you then it’s not only demotivating, but it will guarantee underperformance as well.

Knowing your strengths, knowing how you perform, and knowing what values you want to represent allows you figure out what your exact contribution should be. It’s not just about figuring out what is needed in the current situation, but also in which way you can produce results that are going to make the difference.

Managing relationships

A part of managing yourself involves managing your relationships. Drucker identifies two parts:

First, you have to realize that everyone is an individual just as you. Everyone has their strengths, their optimal ways of performance, and their own values. So in order to be effective (as a team, or an organization) you need to take this into account for others as well.

Second, you need to start communicating. As Drucker puts it: “Whenever I, or any other consultant, start to work with an organization, the first thing I hear about are all the personality conflicts. Most of these arise from the fact that people do not now what other people are doing and how they do their work, or what contribution the other people are concentrating on and what results they expect. And the reason they do not know is that they have not asked and therefore have not been told.”

Second or parallel careers

It’s relatively common for people to pursue second careers after their fist has peaked, or because they want to try and find success in a different area. This is especially true if your first career is in an area that is not the optimal environment for your performance – a second, or parallel career can offer the chance to make a difference somewhere else. A second career also creates options; you are less restricted when you have something else to work on.

Drucker identifies three ways to develop a second career:

  1. Start one – move from one organization to another, different sizes, different industries, or something else altogether
  2. Develop a parallel career – something on the side, or a part time job
  3. Social entrepreneurship – spend less time on the main job, and work on another activity (usually nonprofit)

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