Why liberal arts education matters: the story of a Drucker (mis-)quote

When I did the Pando Monthly interview last week, I was asked to talk about the one thing I believe that almost no one else believes. I said that a liberal arts education is as important, or even more important, than a math and science education (here’s the clip).

Some people thought that I was taking a shot at math and science, but not at all. I just think that being successful in a modern society requires a broader understanding of humanity and people, and the liberal arts and humanities are important ingredients (Before the interview, Sarah Lacy and I talked about how you could learn everything you need to know about personal relationships in failing startups by reading Shakespeare’s King Lear). There wasn’t much time left in the interview, and my job was to give a pithy answer, but a number of people have asked me later why a liberal arts education matters to a CEO. I had an experience this week that illustrates why in a small but important way.

I spend a lot of time thinking about company culture, and talking with other people about the topic. Culture is critical. In his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner wrote: “culture isn’t just one aspect of the game — it is the game.” As you probably know, Gerstner is credited with one of the great company turnarounds with IBM in the 1990s. One question I hear and think about often is: how do you change aspects of your culture if you’re not satisified with them? As I thought about the topic, I was reminded of a quote I’ve seen attributed to Peter Drucker:

Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.

If you search Google for the quote, you get 128,000 results. It’s a great quote. The implications of the quote are absolutely profound for anyone leading a company or a team. Does he mean you should simply accept the culture wholesale? Was Drucker suggesting that culture change was a hopeless endeavor, or was there some other context to the quote? How did he define “culture” anyway? I wanted to read the primary source material that surrounded it to understand why Drucker said it. I’ll admit I was surprised to have never come across this quote in all the Drucker I’ve read over the past few years. I set out to find the original source material.

What I learned is that it doesn’t appear Drucker ever actually wrote or said those words. I started my research by asking my Fancy Hands assistant to find the primary source for the quote. (Fancy Hands could be the most useful service EVER on the Internet, but I’ll save that for another post.) The assistant came back with this article, which attributed the quote to The Daily Drucker, a compendium of Drucker readings for each day of the year. In the article, the author writes about how he gave his nephew a copy of The Daily Drucker, and asked him later to list some of his favorite quotes, which included the culture quote. I have a Kindle copy of The Daily Drucker, and it turns out that the quote doesn’t actually appear in the book. (This made me laugh. The nephew clearly conned his uncle by not reading the book and doing a little Googling for quotes while saving the rest of his time for other pursuits.)

That aside, even if the quote had been in The Daily Drucker, it wasn’t the primary source material, so I asked the assistant to dig deeper. Awash in 128,000 meaningless Google results, she picked up the phone (gasp!) and called The Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. Very quickly, she was on email with Dr. Joseph A. Maciariello, Director of Research and Academic Director of the Drucker Institute. When asked about the quote, Dr. Maciariello pointed us to a piece Drucker wrote for the Wall St. Journal on March 28, 1991 with the title: “Don’t change corporate culture: use it,” on page A14. I won’t go into the hoops we had to go through to get a copy (it is surprisingly difficult for a regular person to buy articles from the WSJ archives). I read the article. Drucker writes about “cultural change” as the latest management fad and the need to change behaviors to achieve desired results. But he said that shouldn’t be confused with changing culture. Here’s the closest I could come to the quote in the actual written text:

What these [business] needs require are changes in behavior. But “changing culture” is not going to produce them. Culture — no matter how defined — is singularly persistent. Nearly 50 years ago, Japan and Germany suffered the worst defeats in recorded history, with their values, their institutions and their culture discredited. But today’s Japan and today’s Germany are unmistakably Japanese and German in culture, no matter how different this or that behavior. In fact, changing behavior works only if it can be based on the existing “culture.”

The sentiment of the quote is roughly the same as the one that has been incorrectly attributed to Drucker 128,000 times but the power of the actual writing and ideas is in the nuance. In particular, the examples of Japan and Germany are uniquely powerful. (The rest of the piece goes much deeper on this but unfortunately it is not linkable). As I read the text, I had a moment of much clearer understanding where Drucker’s point on culture resonated in a way that the misquote simply didn’t deliver. As Gerstner wrote, matters of company culture trump just about everything else when you’re running a company, so this insight is incredibly important to the work I do on a very practical level. It explains why “Code as Craft” resonates so strongly in Etsy’s engineering culture, even though there was near-total change in how the team operated over the course of a few years. The actual text provides thoughtful, inspiring, and tangible examples (post-war Germany and Japan), whereas the misquote is negative and even defeatist (“Never try to change one” and “work with what you’ve got.”)

It’s a little disturbing that so many people could misquote Drucker for so long without any of the quoters realizing it, and I’m sure this quote has been bandied about in board rooms to justify all kinds of plans. I’m certain I have engaged in the same practice with other quotes if only because it takes a lot of work to find the original context, as this experience demonstrates. Misquoting is particularly rampant on the Internet and I’m not the first to write about it by any means — see “Falser Words Were Never Spoken.” But each time we do it, we lose the opportunity to really understand what the person being quoted was really trying to say. We lose the deeper lessons of the text and only get the relative emptiness of a pithy headline that may have removed the insight of the original author. Taking a critical stance on that quote and having the tools to dive down into the primary source material took me from simply having a snappy out-of-context quote to a much deeper insight on a critically important subject.

When I got the first email from my Fancy Hands assistant pointing to the reference to The Daily Drucker, I wasn’t satisfied. I remembered how my professors emphasized the importance of correctly citing primary source material, and I became a pro at using the library and information sources in general. I learned how to look deeper into the text and ask the right questions to really get to the heart of an idea. I ended up with more questions, but much better and more informed ones. These are all skills I learned from my liberal arts education, and they are essential to the work I do every day. That’s the point I was trying to make.

Side note: Two blog posts in a few days? Having a kid has rearranged my schedule and my commitments so thoroughly that I’ve found a little time for writing. I hope to be writing more.

5 thoughts on “Why liberal arts education matters: the story of a Drucker (mis-)quote

  1. Drucker is also famously quoted as saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Or, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” Might these words (or something similar) be in that WSJ article you have? To me, this quote doesn’t sound like Drucker, but I’ve looked for an authoritative source for it without success. That it exists in both “breakfast” and “lunch” incarnations tells me that there may be a bit of Dial-a-Drucker going on.

  2. Why liberal arts education matters – Chad Dickerson's blog - Arts, Beauty & Fashion - The Terracottas

  3. You know what’s sad is that the skills of “citing your source” SHOULD be taught just as equally well (if not more…?) in math and science because sourcing is incredibly important in both of these areas so as to create credibility, etc. Life and death stuff in the fields of medicine, especially!

    I got a BS at Georgia Tech and yet my focus was very much “liberal arts” (i jokingly tell people that I’m not an engineer) as it was a combination of software development, human interaction/design psychology, and post modern philosophy. I know, really weird, right?

    But in all of them I needed to know where my sources were and learned to cite. Such basic stuff.

  4. Chad, you are damned right about Shakespeare. All management skills are shown in Shakespeare and it was a pleasure to read it on your blog!

    I graduated in philosophy and mathematics. For me the third was couching training that taught me relationships. I use all these skills in mentoring and investing. Besides the professional knowledge of course.

  5. But should it take 4 years and $200k to learn to “check your sources”? And does the average/typical LiberalArts student come away with that ability? Even more to the point, shouldn’t that level of thinking been reached *before* college?

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