Become Your Own Successor

Where do you see yourself at 95? That is not an unreasonable question these days. Peter Drucker lived until eight days before his 96th birthday, in 2005, and he was productive until nearly the end of his life. When I interviewed him at the Drucker Archives in Claremont, California, in April 2005, I brought up the notion of his being such an important role model to 21st-century knowledge workers. I mentioned that just in the year leading up to our interview, his book The Daily Drucker, which became one of his most popular works, was released, and he had been published in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Foreign Affairs, and elsewhere. That high-profile, highly productive output would be tough for writers of any age, let alone someone in his mid-90s. It was truly a testament to the power of productive aging, without, as he had put it earlier “becoming a prisoner of the past.” That he produced so much in less than a year is truly remarkable.

In 2011, six years after Drucker’s death, the Brazilian management magazine Administradores asked me who, if anyone, could be considered his successor as the top management authority. While considering various possibilities, I raised the possibility of “Drucker as His Own Successor.” While this may seem flippant, I was completely serious.

Becoming your own successor is somewhat metaphorical and shouldn’t be taken literally. It requires a stretch of the imagination. Some possible interpretations of this concept include something fairly straightforward, such as a promotion within your current organization. Think of athletes who break their own record as another useful metaphor.

Applying the Drucker Example

How can you harness and apply Drucker’s example in your own life? How can you create your own future? The reality is that many of us live or soon will live in a world where our professional identity is defined by an ongoing portfolio of creative output rather than a job title.

Drucker worked all along, learning, meeting, and interacting with people, and building on his own work as a writer, consultant, and teacher. He always tried to tap into the best information and best expertise. His output and dedication were a testament to shunning complacency with one’s own work and reputation.

Here are some key ways that you can cultivate the actions and abilities, based on Drucker’s example, to become your own successor:

Diversify your efforts and outputs.

Drucker wrote books and articles on a regular basis, in a wide variety of outlets. People who have not seen his articles in the Harvard Business Review or Forbes may have encountered them in publications with a somewhat different readership, such as the Atlantic and, in earlier years, the Saturday Evening Post. He also reached people through different but related activities, consulting, and teaching.

Develop a powerful personal brand.

He may not have liked the terminology, but Drucker’s name continues to stand for something, especially when it comes to the study of management. There is tremendous name recognition, and equally important, that name/brand is synonymous with quality and high standards.

 Maintain a global outlook and worldview. 

During the 2005 interview, Drucker told me that a crucial necessity for today’s knowledge worker was a global worldview. He wrote for a worldwide  audience, and his books were published in more than 30 languages. As distances shrink, more of our work has the potential to take on a worldwide reach. In this way, we can learn from artists, architects, and musicians, many of whom have international outlets for their work. A global worldview in these fields has been a given for many years.

Remain relevant.

As we age, we have to figure out ways to remain relevant to people of all ages, especially younger ones. This expresses itself in the workplace when we have a number of generations working together and increasingly younger people managing older workers. Drucker did what was necessary as he aged to make his work relevant, so there was a consistent demand for his output as a writer, consultant, and teacher into his 90s.

Produce a consistently impressive body of work.

The cumulative effect of the quantity and quality of Drucker’s work is impressive. The sheer number of books and articles is a testament to his work ethic and desire to create lasting ideas. We can look to his example to continue building our own body of work, whether or not that work is creative in nature.

Create work that benefits others.

One reason Drucker’s work remains so influential, is that it was predicated on helping others. His work revolved around helping others to become successful and to understand themselves and their work more fully.

His consulting helped executives improve the operations of their organizations and guided them to think more clearly about their work. His writing was a beacon of wisdom to millions and remains so. His books continue to help people lead more productive lives inside and outside the workplace. And his teaching aided countless students over the years to become more effective and accomplished.

Knowledge workers who excel in today’s challenging environment are generative and through their efforts and output help others create their futures and improve their lives. The application of the Drucker mindset for the future implies change, movement, transition, and transformation. It requires not being satisfied or complacent. Keeping the future in mind will affect how you make decisions both on a day-to-day basis and long-term.

You may consider changing jobs or professions or starting new educational endeavors. Uncertainty should be factored into your decisions. You will never have 100 percent certainty, or anything near it, but you can still act and plan accordingly, accepting the opportunity and challenge that the future is yours to create.

In the 2005 interview, I asked Drucker about areas of surprise in his long career. He told me that

“my greatest success has been in Japan, and it totally surprised me…. My…absence of success [in Europe], if you look at the enormous length of time it took before the Europeans paid any attention, not just to me but to my areas of concern, greatly surprised me, took forever…. I’ve had a much greater impact on nonprofits than I’ve had on businesses. And though I have been active in nonprofits for a long time, [that] surprised me…. I have learned that one plans, one has to plan, but one also [should] know that events [can] be contrary.”


Bruce Rosensteinis a writer, speaker, and educator specializing in the life and work of Peter Drucker, the legendary father of modern management. He is managing editor of Leader to Leader, the award-winning journal of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute (formerly the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management), and author of Create Your Future the Peter Drucker Way: Developing and Applying a Forward-Focused Mindset(McGraw-Hill, 2013) and Living in More Than One World: How Peter Drucker’s Wisdom Can Inspire and Transform Your Life(Berrett-Koehler, 2009). He is also a lecturer in the Department of Library and Information Science at the Catholic University of America.

Excerpt from Create Your Future the Peter Drucker Way: Developing and Applying a Forward-Focused Mindset by Bruce Rosenstein (McGraw-Hill, 2013, $28.00). Reprinted with permission from McGraw-Hill Education.

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