Joe’s Journal: On Strengths, Values and Manure
“There rarely is a conflict between a person’s strengths and the way that person performs. The two are complementary. But there is sometimes a conflict between a person’s values and that same person’s strengths. What one does well — even very well — and successfully may not fit with one’s value system . . . I, too, many years ago, had to decide between what I was doing well and successfully, and my values. I was doing extremely well as a young investment banker in London in the mid-1930s; it clearly fitted my strengths. Yet I did not see myself making a contribution as an asset manager of any kind. People, I realized, were my values. And I saw no point in being the richest man in the cemetery. I had no money, no other job in a deep Depression, and no prospects. But I quit — and it was the right thing. Values, in other words, are and should be the ultimate test.”
–Peter F. Drucker
Peter Drucker wrote about the potential conflict between strengths and values in his own life. He told of a time in the early 1930s when he attended the lectures of John Maynard Keynes at Cambridge University as Keynes and his students were developing ideas for what became Keynes’s great book The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. The Keynes lectures seemed to crystallize Drucker’s values leading to what I would describe as a turning point regarding what Drucker should do with his life. He concluded that while Keynes was interested in commodities he, Drucker, was interested in people. Drucker valued people. He had an acute sense of what was valuable and important for him.
You have to realize that this was during the Depression. Yet he still chose to quit his investment banking job without having another job. I suspect most people would not leave such a good job during a depression. I think they’d wait until things opened up a bit then maybe find a better way to align their values with a different job. I just love what this says about Peter and as far as I can tell, he really lived by those values for the rest of his life.
[EXPAND More]He had the competence and strength to be a successful investment banker but it didn’t match his values. I think I too have values similar to those of Peter, but I wasn’t as bold or as decisive as Peter. Nor did I have his strengths. But, I remember having a similar moment of crisis after teaching a macroeconomics class for students at the General Electric Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I was driving home to Burnt Hills, N.Y., very late that night. Eventually, I stopped a few miles before I got home to have a late dinner. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of emptiness and concluded that this might not work for me. I thought, “I just don’t want to do this anymore.”
So, I was very fortunate to be able to arrange a sabbatical at Harvard Business School with Professor Robert Anthony where we were using accounting data in a behavioral way to look at performance measurement, budgeting and reward systems. I was able to integrate my various disciplines and experiences into his approach which was perfect for me at that stage of my life. I loved it. When I started teaching again, I focused on teaching management control systems and had a real zeal for the field. I was excited about looking at whole organizations using a systems perspective. Management by Objectives, developed earlier by Peter, was at the heart of the course.
I think the heart of the Drucker legacy is about people and human nature and how to manage people in organizations. I believe this is an eternal subject. It’s my favorite work and I hope that I will be able to do it forever. It took a little while to get here, but I know my strengths are vis-à-vis my values. As a worker or a manager, if you can identify your values it will open up a world of possibilities for effectiveness and happiness at work. I often wonder how many people bide their time in jobs they have the strengths for but not the values. Drucker believed that it was important to promote the well-being, health and the development of the human being while at work and that involves making sure one’s strengths are aligned with one’s values.
I do not believe Peter was driven by money. In fact he once said to me that “having a lot of money is like having a lot of manure; it doesn’t smell any better the more you pile it up.” You just need enough.