SPA 362 – Spring 2019
Leadership Development Lab II
Week 5 – Business and Technology I: Peter Drucker and Jeff Bezos
This week we introduce a pair of leaders in some ways different from most of those we study in our SPA courses. Peter Drucker is one of the leaders – the inventor, in many ways – of the 20th century’s new field of “management theory.” It seems obvious to us now that the last decades of the 20th century were a dramatic shift to a technology society – this was not obvious when he began writing about it in the 1950s. Jeff Bezos is an heir to Drucker in the sense that he brought about the new kind of economy that Drucker began writing about 50 years earlier. Bezos too has a sense of historical sweep in this view of things – it’s not just the coding skills but the reconception of how an economy can work that helped propel Bezos to become the world’s richest person.
This week our reading selections offer you the opportunity to really commit to learning new, interesting, important ways of thinking about leadership – “In college, we read Peter Drucker, and I remember that he said….” and alternatively the opportunity to try to take a short-cut to learning with quick bites at the apple but the risk of missing some real, long-term nutrition.
Serious students will read these two articles from Drucker, where he picks up the ideas he’s been writing about for decades in a time when those things are actually becoming evident to others. We begin with the Harvard Business Review in 1992, The New Society of Organizations (also available at AU’s online library). He updates this in his 1999 in California Management Review article. You should at least read the 1992 HBR article.
Summaries of these kinds of discussions are offered in Forbes magazine (The Best of Peter Drucker) and HBR (What Peter Drucker knew about 2020). You can add to those these two morsels where the author brings together the ideas of “knowledge workers” and “millennials” – part 1 and part 2.
In some ways Bezos is easy to vilify as the modern-day evil corporate giant like those of 19th century political cartoons about trust-busting. In other ways, he is a one of the very few people who can be called visionary – a person with an idea that is unlike anyone else’s, with the talent and skill and luck and perseverance unlike anyone else, and with the ability to see the day-to-day with some historical context and perspective. Bezos talked about how at the beginning of the 20th century, lots of new companies had the word Motor in them – Ford Motor Company, General Motors, etc., and that of these hundreds of companies, only a few would survive. What determined which of these companies survived, and what lessons might there be for AOL and Netscape and Napster and MySpace and pets.com a hundred years later?
We begin with two short stories about Bezos’s recent speech to the Economic Society in Washington (video below). The first highlights his point that big business should be scrutinized, not vilified (you can also find this article through the AU online library; you might also find it here or elsewhere on the web). The second is a more general review of his leadership and life lessons (you can also find this article through the AU online library; you might also find it here).
The second narrative about Bezos is how he translated this reinvention of business into power in Washington. The Wall Street Journal asked this (you can also find this article through the AU online library or maybe here).
If you have popcorn and a comfortable chair, or are about to go for an hour’s drive or run, may I suggest the following
A classmate suggested adding this reading:
https://hbr.org/2014/07/why-ceos-should-follow-the-market-basket-protests and considering this prompt for your consideration: Business owners interact with a lot of people who can sometimes have conflicting interests, including customers, employees, and shareholders. How does a business leader choose who to prioritize, and how does a business leader make those decisions? In relation to profit, how much does being a moral business leader matter?
For this week, I’d propose a couple of different things.
Some are obvious: in what ways are people who look at economics or industry or workers or employers similar to / different from people who look at governments, agencies, policies, citizens.
Albright and Rice, and in some ways our Nobel laureates, demonstrated how “the vision thing” contributes to leadership. How do Drucker and Bezos do “the vision thing”? We all balance le crise du jour with longer term concerns. Do “leaders” do this differently than ordinary people.
We might also distinguish between those who can see the future and those who shape it – in politics, business, or elsewhere. And what is the role of reflection in leadership: how might an interview in 1999 with Jeff Bezos (or Sirleaf or others) differ from an interview in 2019?
Finally, I’m not sure we have the material here for this prompt yet, but it’s at least worth thinking about as we look ahead. Michael Bloomberg and Howard Schultz and Mitt Romney might run for president in 2020, as Carly Fiorina, Herman Cain, and others with a primarily business (not politics) background have done. Leaving aside policy preferences for a moment: Donald Trump has shown a number of ways in which business leadership skills might translate into political leadership skills, but also a number of ways in which a lack of government experience impacts political performance. Maybe we come back to this prompt in a future week.
As always, if something moved you that’s not raised here, you are free to propose your own prompt. Ok, everyone, let’s have fun