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April 18, 2018

Remembering Bob Buford

September 16, 1939 – April 18, 2018

When Claremont Graduate University hired us in 2007 to breathe new life into Peter Drucker’s teachings by transforming his dusty archives into the Drucker Institute, we were told that among the first people we needed to talk with was a businessman and social entrepreneur named Bob Buford.

Bob had been instrumental in founding the archives, and he had been among Drucker’s most prized consulting clients and closest friends. And so we eagerly headed to meet Bob at his home base in Dallas, convinced that he would prove an enthusiastic supporter of the new organization that we had been charged with creating.

After we stepped into a steakhouse for lunch, the chit-chat lasted less than two minutes before Bob burst our bubble.

“Boys, I know what you’ve come here to ask me for,” he said, “I’m going to give you a quarter of the money you want, and don’t ask me to serve as your chairman. The Drucker Institute is new, and it’s going to need to struggle for its life for a while to prove its worth.”

And so we did. With a tiny budget and just two staffers besides ourselves, those first couple of years were precarious financially and operationally. We found ourselves fighting for our organizational lives every single day—just as Bob wanted. For he knew that through this struggle, we would learn. We would figure out who our customers really were, and what they needed and valued. We would test and pilot all sorts of ideas, some that would stick and many more that would fail. We would hone our mission, and suss out how to measure our results.

Along the way, Bob mentored us with his trademark wisdom: “Go big or go home.” “Build on islands of health and strength.” “Only work on those things that are already trying to happen on their own.” “It is your job to release and direct energy, not supply it.” “Your fruit will grow up on other people’s trees.”

In some cases it took a while—years, in fact—to figure out what exactly Bob’s maxims even meant. But in every instance, he turned out to be right.

Indeed, the Institute’s strategy today is built largely on Bob’s principles: We’ve concentrated on a few big programs where we can make a real difference—abandoning everything else—and we measure our results in terms of how we’ve made our customers more effective in their management and leadership.

Apparently, we did something right. Despite his original protestations, Bob became our board chair and one of our largest donors.

For all of his intellectual power and generosity, however, perhaps Bob’s greatest gift to us was his immense personal warmth and humility. “I long ago decided that I was never going to be against anything,” he told us a while back. “I was only going to be for things.”

Bob was, in every way, for the Drucker Institute. And for that, we will always be blessed.

— Rick Wartzman & Zach First