Drucker Classic: Effective Leadership


Peter F. Drucker
(1909 – 2005)

Every now and then we are happy to share some summaries of Harvard Business Review Classics for inspiration. This time the HBR Drucker Classic “What makes an effective executive?”. Peter F. Drucker is recognized worldwide as the No. 1 leader in management and the founder of leadership.

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Peter F. Drucker
(1909 – 2005)

Leaders worldwide show wide differences in personality, attitude, strengths, weaknesses, values and norms. Some are born leaders, some have learned to be one. Which approach makes an effective leader effective? Peter F. Drucker devoted an article to this in 2004 that has become an HBR Classic. According to Drucker, effective leadership is primarily a discipline that can be learned and earned. Below is a summary of his key findings, which we are happy to share with you.

According to Drucker, effective leaders share the following approach in common:

Smeenk's Personal Assistants     Focus 

Effective leaders focus on one or two opportunities that are “the right thing for the enterprise” and where they can provide excellent fulfillment like no other. Effective leaders do not fragment their attention. Effective leaders are well aware that organizations thrive when top management thrives. And that exceptional results are achieved by exploiting opportunities. They postpone or delegate other matters, however important or perhaps attractive to tackle. After realizing their original top priority (s), they rearrange their priorities. For the right focus, they always ask themselves the question “What must be done now?”.

Smeenk's Personal Assistants     Plan of action

Effective leaders are doers. Knowledge becomes valuable to them when they can translate it into an action plan. A plan that anticipates flexibility and is adjusted on the basis of successes (as well as failure) that create new opportunities. This plan also serves as a time management indicator for the effective leader. For any effective leader, time is the rarest and most precious resource. And organizations – regardless of whether government, business or non-profit – are inherent time robbers. By regularly checking this plan for results, an effective leader knows which things are a priority and which ‘noise’.

Smeenk's Personal Assistants     Performance

When translating plans into actions, effective leaders pay particular attention to decision-making, communication, opportunities, reliability and productive meetings. We therefore explain each separately below.


Effective leaders ensure that each decision clearly specifies:

  • who is responsible for the implementation;
  • what the deadline is;
  • to whom the decision has an impact and who should be informed about it (incl. buy in);
  • to whom it has no direct impact, but who should be informed.

An effective leader regularly evaluates their decisions. In particular, decisions in the field of human resources and promotions. They do not tolerate breaches of key positions and correct where necessary.


Information keeps an organization together, even more than ownership or management. Effective leaders focus on input and feedback from their superiors, colleagues and employees. Effective leaders let them know what information they need in order to achieve excellent results. Effective leaders also ensure that their superiors, colleagues and employees receive the information they need to excel sustainably. Too often, leaders are unnecessarily flooded with irrelevant information. The effective leader solves this by filtering the necessary information, requesting it from the source and actually securing it through follow-up monitoring.


Effective leaders focus on opportunities. Of course, problems are there to be solved, but they should not overshadow opportunities. Solving problems, however necessary sometimes, does not produce results. Solving problems prevents damage. Exploiting opportunities produces results. Effective leaders see change above all as an opportunity, not a risk. They look at changes inside and outside the organization (new technologies, product innovations, new market structures, etc.), and wonder how they can translate these into opportunities for their organization. Then they place their best people on the best opportunities. “The best people are matched with the best opportunities.”

Reliability and productive meetings

Effective leaders ensure organization-wide accountability and keep their meetings as productive and efficient as possible. On the one hand by clear communication in advance, such as the purpose of the meeting. On the other hand, through self-discipline, so meetings do not ‘fan out’ on many topics. Effective leaders summarize meetings as soon as the specific goal is reached, thank everyone for their input and conclude afterwards. They stick to the goal of the meeting. They then ensure an accurate follow-up, which Drucker believes is at least as important as the meeting itself. This follow-up consists of a short summary that each participant receives afterwards, including tasks, deadlines and responsible person(s).

Smeenk's Personal Assistants     “We” instead of “me”

Effective leaders think and say “we” instead of “me.” The authority of the effective leader comes from the trust of the organization itself. In order to achieve the best results, effective leaders place the needs and opportunities of their organization ahead of their own.

Smeenk's Personal Assistants     And ‘last but not least’

“Listen first, speak last” …

The full version of this article appeared in the June 2004-issue of Harvard Business Review. Reprint: R0406C.

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