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Lessons From Peter Drucker

Drucker on the Danger of Professionalism -- and Its Cure

William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted: 09/29/2011

More than fifty years ago, Drucker reported on the allegory of the three stonecutters. According to Drucker, these three workers were approached and asked what they were doing. The first answered: "I’m earning a living by cutting stone." The second one didn’t even look up when the question was asked. He continued to work, but immediately answered, "I’m doing the best job of cutting stone of anyone in my profession." The third worker had a visionary look on his face as he replied, "I’m building a cathedral."

Now I heard that story since delivered by a nationally known motivational speaker. While this speaker suggested that the third stonecutter had the ideal approach, he opinioned that the second one came pretty darn close and that if the worker or manager did not have the vision for the project, at least he was going to do the absolute best job professionally that he could.

Why the Nationally Known Motivational Speaker was Wrong


Drucker’s analysis came to a very different conclusion, and this difference has a significant impact on both the way we look at managing or performing any task regardless of our specialty or our goal. Drucker wrote that we would get useful work from the first stonecutter. His philosophy was clearly something along the lines of a "fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay." Unless he changes his thinking, he is not a manager, and he has career limitations which he has placed on himself which he may not even understand. But as far as the project of building the cathedral goes, we can get useful work from him.

Drucker also agreed that the third stonecutter was ideal both for the immediate job and for the future of the organization. This stonecutter also had potential a future manager. However, Drucker disagreed strongly with the motivational speaker regarding his conclusions about the second stonecutter. He said that this man was not only a problem, but was even potentially dangerous to the organization and the project. Of course good workmanship and good professionalism are essential in any organization and should be encouraged. However, there is a great danger, according to Drucker. This is that anyone proclaiming workmanship or professionalism as hisprimary goal did not put the goals of the organization first. He might believe he was accomplishing something towards organizational goals when in fact, all he was doing was cutting stone, albeit to the best of his ability and in the best possible way. Drucker wrote that while workmanship should always be encouraged, it must always be related to the needs of the whole organization, and especially to the organization’s mission. The goal of the organization must come first, so long as it is maintained with integrity. Or to quote stonecutter number three in this instance, towards "building a cathedral."

Professionalism, Not Always the Best Thing


The German Army of the 1930’s was known for its professionalism. It put its military proficiency above all else, even the State which it was entrusted with defending. When Hitler came to full power in Germany after the death of President Hindenburg in 1934, he recognized the extreme professionalism of the German Army and was determined to take advantage of it to further his own interests. He did this by having the Army take a loyalty oath, not to the German Constitution as in the past, but to the person of Adolf Hitler. For the professionally-minded German Army this presented a tremendous dilemma when the extent of Hitler’s depravity and evil intents became self evident. By the Army’s interpretation of honor and professionalism they could not rebel against Hitler since they had sworn "by God a sacred oath to the Leader of the German empire and people, Adolph Hitler." As a result, even though the extent of his atrocities was common knowledge of senior officers of the German armed forces, they felt they could do nothing against him less they impugn their professional honor. It was not until July 20th, 1944 that a significant attempt to assassinate Hitler to end the crimes committed in the name of the German people was made in "Operation Valkyrie". By then it was far too late, and the attempt failed.

Other Types of Misguided Professionalism


Drucker criticized both workers and managers for the direction in which professionalism sometimes led them. He pointed out that in every contract negotiation with management, unions were expected to achieve more and more benefits. But these benefits were always at the expense of the corporation, since productivity was not simultaneously considered and it was not increased. Drucker was one of the first to propose that union leaders be appointed to the boards of corporations so that they would share in the responsibility and accountability of the decisions taken.

But Drucker did not spare management his criticism and his wrath. The continued increase in levels of compensation of top level professional managers, who rotated to increased salaries from one company to another, resulted in salaries many times that of their employees. He considered this an abomination and clear evidence of their devotion to a management "profession" and not the primary welfare of the organizations which were entrusted to them and for which they were responsible. "Society will eventually pay a terrible price for this abomination," he claimed. And of course, he was right.

Giving Up Professionalism for the Good of the Organization


Surrendering professionalism for the greater good of the organization is never easy. It means that sometimes a subordinate organization or an individual is denied the resources needed to be number one in the interest of other subordinate organizations or individuals being able to make contributions so that the overall organization reaches its goals. It is avoiding what has been called suboptimization and a measurement of the engagement of your employees with the organization. This is easily seen in sports where, for example, the champion star basketball player who is well on his way to setting a new individual record in baskets gives the ball to a teammate who can score more easily or with less risk in order to ensure a victory for the team.

What This Means as Individual Professionals


As individual professionals, we avoid the hazards Drucker notes by putting the goals of the organization first. This means a hard-pressed finance officer, human resource manager, engineer, or salesperson gives his or her own valuable time to help or train the neophyte, new hire, or just someone who is less experienced. This may hurt the individual performance of the professional who does this, but it is immensely valuable to the organization as it seeks to "build a cathedral."

William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted: 09/29/2011