Working on the right things - Peter Drucker

The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker

I read The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker in 2012 at the recommendation of a good friend. It is a great book on leadership, not just for executives, but for anyone regardless of your title. The book was originally published in 1967, so I was reading it 45 years after the fact. Yet, by and large, the content was as relevant for today’s business leaders as it was when it was first written. Here are some of my favorite quotes (I apologize for not having page numbers for the quotes. I read it on the Kindle, so all I have is the Kindle “location.”):

Strategy and Productivity

  • Working on the right things - Peter Drucker“There are few things less pleasing to the Lord, and less productive, than an engineering department that rapidly turns out beautiful blueprints for the wrong product. Working on the right things is what makes knowledge work effective. This is not capable of being measured by any of the yardsticks for manual work.” – Location 108
  • “There is no lack of ideas in any organization I know. ‘Creativity’ is not our problem. But few organizations ever get going on their own good ideas.” – Location 1587
  • “A decision is a judgment. It is a choice between alternatives. It is rarely a choice between right and wrong. It is at best a choice between ‘almost right’ and ‘probably wrong.'” – Location 2094
  • “[The effective executive] always assumes that the event that clamors for his attention is in reality a symptom. He looks for the true problem. He is not content with doctoring the symptom alone.” – Location 1878
  • “Brilliant insight is not by itself achievement. They never have learned that insights become effectiveness only through hard systematic work.” – Location 76


  • “[Effective executives] concentrate—their own time and energy as well as that of their organization—on doing one thing at a time, and on doing first things first.” – Location 1528
  • Priorities - Deciding What Tasks to Tackle - Peter Drucker“The reason why so few executives concentrate [on priorities] is the difficulty of setting “posteriorities”—that is, deciding what tasks not to tackle—and of sticking to the decision.” – Location 1615
  • “It is much easier to draw up a nice list of top priorities and then to hedge by trying to do “just a little bit” of everything else as well. This makes everybody happy. The only drawback is, of course, that nothing whatever gets done.” – Location 1637
  • “Effective executives know where their time goes…They gear their efforts to results…They force themselves to set priorities.” – Location 385
  • “Concentration—that is, the courage to impose on time and events his own decision as to what really matters and comes first—is the executive’s only hope of becoming the master of time and events.” – Location 1656
  • “Act or do not act; but do not “hedge” or compromise. The surgeon who only takes out half the tonsils or half the appendix risks as much infection.” – Location 2298

 Goals and Results

  • “If the executive lets the flow of events determine what he does, what he works on, and what he takes seriously, he will fritter himself away ‘operating.'” – Location 225
  • “The effective executive focuses on contribution. He looks up from his work and outward toward goals. He asks: ‘What can I contribute that will significantly affect the performance and the results of the institution I serve?'” – Location 795
  • “The man who focuses on efforts and who stresses his downward authority is a subordinate no matter how exalted his title and rank.” – Location 809
  • “The man who focuses on contribution and who takes responsibility for results, no matter how junior, is in the most literal sense of the phrase, ‘top management.'” – Location 810
  • When there is confusion on results - Peter Drucker“When there is confusion as to what [results] should be, there are no results.” – Location 847
  • “The ones who are enthusiastic and who, in turn, have results to show for their work, are the ones whose abilities are being challenged and used.” – Location 1233
  • “People who get nothing done often work a great deal harder.” – Location 1521
  • “Effectiveness, in other words, is a habit; that is, a complex of practices. And practices can always be learned.” – Location 374

Testing and Proving Productivity

  • “[Programs] will not produce results as long as we maintain the traditional assumption that all programs last forever unless proven to have outlived their usefulness. The assumption should rather be that all programs outlive their usefulness fast and should be scrapped unless proven productive and necessary.” – Location 1561
  • Putting all programs on tria - Peter Druckerl“Putting all programs and activities regularly on trial for their lives and getting rid of those that cannot prove their productivity work wonders in stimulating creativity even in the most hidebound bureaucracy.” – Location 1588
  • “One starts with opinions. These are, of course, nothing but untested hypotheses and, as such, worthless unless tested against reality.” – Location 2097
  • “Everyone is far too prone to … look for the facts that fit the conclusion they have already reached.” – Location 2109
  • “We know what to do with hypotheses—one does not argue them; one tests them.” – Location 2114
  • “Feedback has to be built into the decision to provide a continuous testing, against actual events, of the expectations that underlie the decision.” – Location 2044
  • “[The effective executive] had better go out and look at the scene of action, [or] he will be increasingly divorced from reality.” – Location 2082
  • “He insists that people who voice an opinion also take responsibility for defining what factual findings can be expected and should be looked for.” – Location 2119

Focusing on People’s Strengths

  • “[The effective executive] does not make staffing decisions to minimize weaknesses but to maximize strength.” – Location 1071
  • “Before he chose Grant, [Abraham Lincoln] had appointed in succession three or four Generals whose main qualifications were their lack of major weaknesses.” – Location 1077
  • “Strong people always have strong weaknesses too.” – Location 1087
  • “The less we know about his weaknesses, the better. What we do need to know are the strengths of a man and what he can do.” – Location 1256
  • “The task of an executive is not to change human beings. Rather …the task is to multiply performance capacity of the whole by putting to use whatever strength, whatever health, whatever aspiration there is in individuals.” – Location 1475
  • “[Executive effectiveness] raises the eyes of its people from preoccupation with problems to a vision of opportunity, from concern with weakness to exploitation of strengths.” – Location 2474
  • “No executive has ever suffered because his subordinates were strong and effective.” – Location 1091
  • “It is only too easy to be misled this way into looking for the “least misfit” —the one man who leaves least to be desired. And this is invariably the mediocrity.” – Location 1136
  • “‘What can this man do?’ was [General Marshall’s] constant question. And if a man could do something, his lacks became secondary.” – Location 1348


  • “The meetings were far too large. And because every participant felt that he had to show interest, everybody asked at least one question —most of them irrelevant.” – Location 603
  • “[If] people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more—there is time-wasting malorganization. [Though] there are exceptions.” – Location 688
  • “Too many meetings signify that work that should be in one job or in one component is spread over several jobs or several components. They signify that responsibility is diffused and that information is not addressed to the people who need it.” – Location 695
  • “The effective man always states at the outset of a meeting the specific purpose and contribution it is to achieve.” – Location 1049
  • “If executives in an organization spend more than a fairly small part of their time in meeting, it is a sure sign of malorganization.” – Location 683

Personnel Decisions

  • “He has learned the hard way how many men who looked like geniuses when they worked elsewhere show up as miserable failures six months after they have started working ‘for us.'” – Location 1581
  • “An organization needs to bring in fresh people with fresh points of view fairly often. If it only promotes from within it soon becomes inbred and eventually sterile.” – Location 1583
  • “Executives everywhere complain that many young men with fire in their bellies turn so soon into burned-out sticks. They have only themselves to blame: They quenched the fire by making the young man’s job too small.” – Location 1237
  • “[Effective] executives take time out [to ask]… ‘What should we at the head of this organization know about your work?'” – Location 478
  • “[Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., former head of General Motors] was reported never to make a personnel decision the first time it came up. …Only when he came up with the same name two or three times in a row was he willing to go ahead.” – Location 501
  • “People-decisions are time-consuming, for the simple reason that the Lord did not create people as ‘resources’ for organization. They do not come in the proper size and shape for the tasks that have to be done in organization.” – Location 521
  • “One hires new people to expand on already established and smoothly running activity. But one starts something new with people of tested and proven strength, that is, with veterans.” – Location 1578


  • “As usually presented, delegation makes little sense if it implies, as the usual sermon does, that the laziest manager is the best manager, it is not only nonsense; it is immoral.” – Location 579
  • “‘Delegation’ as the term is customarily used, is a misunderstanding—is indeed misdirection. But getting rid of anything that can be done by somebody else so that one does not have to delegate but can really get to one’s own work—that is a major improvement in effectiveness.” – Location 593
  • “An enormous amount of the work being done by executives is work that can easily be done by others, and therefore should be done by others.” – Location 593

 Organizational Structure and Communication

  • “In a lean organization people have room to move without colliding with one another and can do their work without having to explain it all the time.” – Location 668
  • “The larger the organization, the more time will be needed just to keep the organization together and running, rather than to make it function and produce.” – Location 757
  • “We have been working at communications downward from management to the employees, from the superior to the subordinate. But communications are practically impossible if they are based on the downward relationship.” – Location 989
  • “The needs of large-scale organization have to be satisfied by common people achieving uncommon performance.” – Location 2466

Designing Jobs

  • “Jobs have to be objective; that is, determined by task rather than by personality.” – Location 1139
  • “Structuring jobs to fit personality is almost certain to lead to favoritism and conformity.” – Location 1158
  • “The effective executive therefore first makes sure that the job is well-designed. And if experience tells him otherwise, he does not hunt for genius to do the impossible. He redesigns the job.” – Location 1201


  • “At least half the bureaus and agencies of the federal government of the United States either regulate what no longer needs regulation… Or they are directed, as is most of the farm program, toward investment in politicians’ egos and toward efforts that should have had results but never achieved them.” – Location 1551
  • “There is serious need for a new principle of effective administration under which every act, every agency, and every program of government is conceived as temporary and as expiring automatically after a fixed number of years.” – Location 1555
  • “A country with many laws is a country of incompetent lawyers,” says an old legal proverb. It is a country which attempts to solve every problem as a unique phenomenon, rather than as a special case under general rules of law. Similarly, an executive who makes many decisions is both lazy and ineffectual.” – Location 1895


  • “Efficiency; that is, the ability to do things right rather than the ability to get the right things done.” – Location 84
  • “Unless [the executive] changes it by deliberate action, the flow of events will determine what he is concerned with and what he does.” – Location 217
  • “A common cause of time-waste is largely under the executive’s control and can be eliminated by him. That is the time of others he himself wastes.” – Location 597
  • “[Many an executive] resign himself to having at least half his time taken up by things of minor importance and dubious value.” – Location 749
  • “If a man wants to be an executive—that is, if he wants to be considered responsible for his contribution—he has to concern himself with the usability of his ‘product’—that is, his knowledge.” – Location 946
  • “The effective executive tries to be himself; he does not pretend to be someone else. He looks at his own performance and at his own results and tries to discern a pattern. “What are the things,” he asks, “that I seem to be able to do with relative ease, while they come rather hard to other people?”” – Location 1449
  • “The distance between the leaders and the average is a constant. If leadership performance is high, the average will go up.” – Location 1470
  • “There are two different kinds of compromise…’half a loaf is better than no bread.’…’half a baby is worse than no baby at all.'” – Location 1985
  • “I always stop when things seem out of focus.” – Location 2316
  • “He needs opportunity, he needs achievement, he needs fulfillment, he needs values. Only by making himself an effective executive can the knowledge worker obtain these satisfactions.” – Location 2525
1 reply
  1. Tom
    Tom says:

    I thought that I was perhaps the only person who had ever read this amazing book. I acquired my copy in about 1970. The most lasting lesson for me was to “build on people’s strengths” – and their weaknesses simply go away. Thank you for such a wonderful summary of the book


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