Lessons from Peter Drucker: The Power and Purpose of Objectives

Drucker is famous for declaring the foundation and central importance of thinking through "what our business is and what it should be." Less famous is what Drucker declared must be done after the basic definition of the business and its purpose and mission — that is the big goals of the organization — have been decided. He stated that these goal statements must be translated into objectives. "Otherwise," Drucker continued, "they remain insight, good intentions, and brilliant epigrams which never become achievement."

This is true for every organization, large or small. Moreover whatever objectives result, if you head the organization, or you are treating yourself as "an organization," you must be committed to those objectives in order to translate them into action.

Commitment to Objectives

Several years ago I did the research which resulted in the book, The Stuff of Heroes: The Eight Universal Laws of Leadership. I surveyed and interviewed more than 200 combat leaders from all military services and from all ranks from private through four-star general and admiral. Drucker thought that with my background I was well-suited to performing this task.

In any case, I asked these battle veterans, all of whom had gone on to extraordinary positions of leadership in civilian life, what if anything they had learned from leading in combat that they successfully applied in their civilian careers. I asked each of them for three specific examples.

I expected to get hundreds of answers and ideas.I thought that I would write a book of leadership ideas the size of a small encyclopedia. Instead, I was amazed to discover that 95 percent of the responses fell into only eight categories. That’s where I got the subtitle of the bookOne of these eight laws of leadership was to show uncommon commitment. But commitment to what? The answer is commitment to goals as supported by the objectives which Drucker wrote about.

What’s so special about showing uncommon commitment? Why do others follow someone who demonstrates this quality? Psychologists have identified two main reasons why showing uncommon commitment yields such dramatic results:

  • It proves that the goal or objective is worthwhile and really important.
  • It proves that the leader isn’t going to quit because he or she is committed to the objective too.

We Go All Out Only for Important Objectives

People don’t generally exert themselves very much for small, unimportant objectives. We work hard, take great risks, and let nothing stop us when it comes to achieving big, important goals. That’s why those who try to play down the difficulty of a task — or those who think too small in their own lives — make a big mistake. It is far better to be honest with yourself and others. Tell things exactly as they are, no matter how much effort will be required in accomplishing the objectives envisioned. As a newly appointed prime minister, Winston Churchill exhorted his countrymen in a speech given to the House of Commons of the British Parliament on May 13, 1940 that he had nothing to offer them but "blood, toil, tears and sweat." It took five years, and what he said was true. Against all odds at the time of his speech, he led a struggle which in heroic partnership with other countries resulted in victory over Nazi Germany. If you have objectives which will lead to a major result such as Churchill did, or a life goal, don’t be afraid to actually go after it and struggle until you reach final success.

Two College Graduates and Why They Succeeded Unequally

Two recent college classmates were hired by the same company after graduation. Both had done about equally well in school, and they were hired for similar departments at the same entry-level managerial rank. They were both ambitious. The first wanted one day to be "the big boss," the president. He was afraid because he didn’t know how he would ever get to this lofty position, but he recognized that he should have some aim in life. So he decided to pick a life goal that he knew more about and he was more confident that, with effort, he knew he could reach. He put aside his ambition to become president, and instead set as his life goal becoming a department head.

Interestingly the second recent graduate also wanted to be president someday. He didn’t know how he would get there, but he set this as his goal anyway. When both managers retired 35 years later, the first had reached the precise goal he had set out to achieve. In fact, he headed the department in which he was first hired. However, he had a nagging suspicion that he might have even done better had he set a higher goal.

Did his classmate reach the goal of president he had set? No! He had "only" reached the goal of Executive Vice President. Would the first classmate have reached a much higher position if he had set a higher goal? I’ve heard motivational speakers say: "Life will pay any price you ask of it." I think that I may have heard this first from a Napoleon Hill or W. Clements Stone tape. But credit recently has been given to Tony Robbins, who declares this important truism in his seminars. In any case, the concept is ancient. In the New Testament, Matthew 7:7 it says"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened."

Don’t Quit on the Way to Achievement

Others won’t help or follow you if they think that your commitment is temporary, or that you may quit the objective short of attainment. Why should they? Why should they invest their time, money, lives or fortune in something if you aren’t going to lead them there anyway? Others will only follow you when they are convinced that you won’t quit no matter how difficult the task looks, or no matter what obstacles you encounter along the way. Napoleon Bonaparte told his generals: "If you decide to take Vienna, take Vienna."

Drucker’s Five Specifications for Objective Development

In analyzing the purpose and power of objectives, Drucker articulated five specifications for objectives which he discussed in some detail in his seminal work: Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices:

1. Objectives must be derived from "what our business is, what it will be, and what it should be." They are not abstractions that we pull out of the air because we think they sound good. If we are working out objectives to attain a life goal, we begin from the same origin of deciding what our life business is or should be.

2. Objectives must be operational. That is, they must be convertible to specific assignments for ourselves or others.

3. Objectives must facilitate concentration of resources and efforts; that is of money, people, equipment and facilities. That’s because the basis of any winning strategy is concentration of superior resources at the decisive point.

4. There must be multiple objectives, rather than a single "one right objective." You must balance a variety of needs and goals in managing any endeavor. Moreover, the situation may require a shifting of objectives, but final goals rarely change.

5. Objectives are needed in all areas in which the survival of the organization depends. These objectives will vary depending on the business, but the areas tend to be the same for all organizations. These key areas are:

  • Marketing
  • Innovation
  • Human Organization
  • Financial Resources
  • Physical Resources
  • Productivity
  • Social Responsibility
  • Profit Requirements

Drucker found that objectives have both purpose and power. Their purpose is to facilitate the achievement of goals. Their power in assisting in the achievement of goals are not only useful for success, they are essential for success.