Article: Drucker’s Managing Oneself – life & career advice for anyone (from pastors to pimps)


February 26, 2020



In his classic 1999 HBR article Managing Oneself, Peter Drucker explains how knowledge workers (and indeed all humans) can understand themselves and navigate their careers. In this blog post, I’ll summarise the key guidelines from the article including a brief story about the ambassador who refused to be a pimp.

Examples & Stories

I’ll start with the story.

In 1906, the German Ambassador to Britain resigned unexpectedly. He had been asked to host a dinner for the King of England at the time, Edward VII. The king was a known philanderer and it had been made clear to the ambassador that the king expected extra guests. Rather than organize the dinner, the ambassador resigned. He cut short a promising career. Later he explained he had been shaving and looked in the mirror and said to himself “I refuse to see a pimp in the mirror in the morning when I shave.”


In this post, I’m trying to extract the “guidelines” from Drucker’s article. Each guideline is a solution to a problem. In essence they provide a good practice: what to do, how, when and why. As a summary, here are all the guidelines I found in the article as a nested list. Later I’ll go into a little more detail on some of them.

  • Build on your strengths
  • Be your own chief executive
  • Understand yourself by asking…
    • What are my strengths? (using feedback analysis)
    • How do I work?
      • How do I learn best? (read, write, listen, talk, do)
      • How do I work best with others (alone, subordinate, coach)?
      • Am I a decision maker or an advisor?
        • Don’t promote the number two (advisor)
      • Do I perform well under stress?
      • What kind of work environment suits me best (structured or unstructured)?
    • What are my values?
      • Do the mirror test
      • When scaling an organization, combine external hires with growth from within
    • Where do I belong?
      • Distinguish between strengths and values
    • What can I contribute?
      • Create an 18 month plan
      • Take responsibility for relationships & for communication
        • Share values and ways of learning with coworkers
  • Pick a role and organisation that fits your values
    • Structure an organisation for short term results or long term growth
  • Find a second purpose mid-career
    • Move organisation/role
    • Start a parallel career
    • Social entrepreneurship

It’s a long list. Next I'll go into more detail on some of the guidelines.

Build on your strengths

Why? it takes more effort to go from incompetent to mediocre than from competent to excellence.

Examples: in one of the first manager training programs I undertook early in my career, the coach had us all do a DISC assesment. She reassured us no one can be great at everything. Rather than obsess over our natural shortcomings, work to being them up to a level where they are not holding you back. Don’t go too much further and try become someone you’re not. This is also the core tenet of StrengthsFinder.

Drucker says, "The conclusion bears repeating: Do not try to change yourself—you are unlikely to succeed. But work hard to improve the way you perform."

What are my values?

Why: working in an organization that’s incompatible with your values is bad for you and the organization.

How: Drucker suggests the mirror test. He focuses more on examples from organizations (see below).

I find values quite nebulous and Drucker doesn’t say much about how to discover personal values. All of his examples are of organizations. In a later post I’ll return to this guideline from other authors and try learning by writing / summarizing.

Examples & Stories:

  • Pharmaceutical companies could aim for constant, small improvements or occasional, expensive, and risky breakthroughs.
  • A company might look to hire people from the outside only after exhausting all the inside possibilities. Others believe in first looking outside “to bring in fresh blood”. Drucker believes companies should try to do both.
  • A pastoral church could focus on increasing the number of newcomers or the spiritual growth and filtering of those who don’t fit.

Take responsibility for relationships & communication

Why: modern organizations have shifted from force to trust.

In a previous article, I provided guidelines for how to manage your manager. Drucker recommends understanding one’s manager.

"It is incumbent on the people who work with them to observe them, to find out how they work, and to adapt themselves to what makes their bosses most effective"

Find a second purpose mid-career

Why: life changes. Knowledge workers outlive organizations. A second major interest can make a contribution and help you know when to change the work you do. If a major life event happens, a second major interest may make a big difference.

How: start to explore before you need do.

“Successful careers are not planned. They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values.”

Reading the article, another guideline occurred to me.

Check for candidate values fit

When: interviewing a candidate for your organization

How: create a standard set of questions based on the values of the organisation

Why: to be effective in an organization, a person needs values that are compatible (they don’t need to be exactly the same). People’s values don’t change and organizations change slowly.

These are just a few of the guidelines. I recommend you read the full article.

The bigger picture

This post is an example of a curated set of guidelines from an article. Future posts will curate books and other content. We’re planning posts on:

  • Productivity
  • Starting a business
  • Scaling a team
  • Managing cash flow in a growing business

Guidelines are also known as:

  • best-practices
  • patterns
  • principles
  • tips
  • hacks
  • mental models
  • directives

If you’d like to write for LearnShareDo, please send an email to (write at learnsharedo dot com).

Thanks for reading! If you have any other examples or feedback please comment/follow/share below or on: twitter, medium or linkedin.

Disclosure: some links in this post may use Amazon affiliate links.

Credits: photo by Ana do Amaral on Unsplash

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