18 September 2019

Managing Oneself

An outline of Peter Drucker’s “Managing Oneself”, a short but essential book for navigating your professional life.

Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself is a short book (originally published as an article in 1999) that provides the best framework I’ve found for understanding what your professional strengths are and how best to use them.

Given the short length of the book, I decided to make a complete outline of its major points. It should be useful as both a reference for those who have already read the book and a quick summary for those who haven’t.

I’ve largely quoted Drucker verbatim within the outline, but have made some minor edits to several sections for the sake of clarity.


  1. What are my strengths?

    1. Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. More often, people know what they are not good at—and even then more people are wrong than right. And yet, a person can perform only from strength.
    2. The only way to discover your strengths is through feedback analysis. Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the actual results with your expectations.
    3. Several implications for action follow from feedback analysis.
      1. First and foremost, concentrate on your strengths.
      2. Second, work on improving your strengths.
      3. Third, discover where your intellectual arrogance is causing disabling ignorance and overcome it.
    4. It is equally essential to remedy your bad habits—the things you do or fail to do that inhibit your effectiveness and performance.
    5. One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.
  2. How do I perform?

    1. Just as people achieve results by doing what they are good at, they also achieve results by working in ways that they best perform. A few common personality traits usually determine how a person performs.
      1. Am I a reader or a listener?
      2. How do I learn?
        1. Some people learn by writing.
        2. Some people learn by doing.
        3. Others learn by hearing themselves talk.
      3. In what relationship to other people do I work best?
        1. Some people work best as subordinates.
        2. Some people work best as team members.
        3. Others work best alone.
        4. Some are exceptionally talented as coaches and mentors
      4. Do I produce results as a decision maker or as an adviser?
      5. Do I perform well under stress, or do I need a highly structured and predictable environment?
      6. Do I work best in a big organization or a small one?
    2. Do not try to change yourself—you are unlikely to succeed. But work hard to improve the way you perform. And try not to take on work you cannot perform or will only perform poorly.
  3. What are my values?

    1. Values are not just a question of ethics. Ethics requires that you ask yourself, What kind of person do I want to see in the mirror in the morning? What is ethical behavior in one kind of organization or situation is ethical behavior in another. But ethics is only part of a value system.
    2. Different values bespeak different views of the relationship between organizations and people; different views of the responsibility of an organization to its people and their development; and different views of a person’s most important contribution to an enterprise.
    3. For instance, whether a business should be run for short-term results or with a focus on the long term is a question of values.
    4. To work in an organization whose value system is unacceptable or incompatible with one’s own condemns a person both to frustration and to nonperformance.
    5. There is sometimes a conflict between a person’s values and his or her strengths. What one does well—even very well and successfully—may not fit with one’s value system. In that case, the work may not appear to be worth devoting one’s life to (or even a substantial portion thereof).
  4. Where do I belong?

    1. A small number of people know very early where they belong. But most people, especially highly gifted people, do not really know where they belong until they are well past their mid-twenties.
    2. By that time, however, they should know the answers to the three questions: What are my strengths? How do I perform? and, What are my values? And then they can and should decide where they belong. Or rather, they should be able to decide where they do not belong.
    3. Equally important, knowing the answer to these questions enables a person to say to an opportunity, an offer, or an assignment, “Yes, I will do that. But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way the relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am.”
  5. What should I contribute?

    1. Throughout history, the great majority of people never had to ask the question, What should I contribute? They were told what to contribute, and their tasks were dictated either by the work itself—as it was for the peasant or artisan—or by a master or a mistress—as it was for domestic servants. And until very recently, it was taken for granted that most people were subordinates who did as they were told.
    2. There is no return to the old answer of doing what you are told or assigned to do. Knowledge workers in particular have to learn to ask a question that has not been asked before: What should my contribution be? To answer it, they must address three distinct elements.
      1. What does the situation require?
      2. Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done?
      3. Where and how can I achieve results that will make a difference within the next year and a half?
        1. The results should be hard to achieve-they should require “stretching.”
        2. The results should be meaningful.
        3. The results should be visible, and if at all possible, measurable.
  6. Managing yourself requires taking responsibility for relationships.

    1. Accept the fact that other people are as much individuals as you yourself are. They perversely insist on behaving like human beings. This means that they too have their strengths; they too have their ways of getting things done; they too have their values. To be effective, therefore, you have to know the strengths, the performance modes, and the values of your coworkers.
    2. The second part of relationship responsibility is taking responsibility for communication. Whenever I, or any other consultant, start to work with an organization, the first thing I hear about are all the personality conflicts. Most of these arise from the fact that people do not know what other people are doing and how they do their work, or what contribution the other people are concentrating on and what results they expect. And the reason they do not know is that they have not asked and therefore have not been told.
    3. Organizations are no longer built on force but on trust. The existence of trust between people does not necessarily mean that they like one another. It means that they understand one another. Taking responsibility for relationships is therefore an absolute necessity. It is a duty.
  7. The second half of your life

    1. When work for most people meant manual labor, there was no need to worry about the second half of your life. You simply kept on doing what you had always done.
    2. Today, however, most work is knowledge work, and knowledge workers are not “finished” after 40 years on the job, they are merely bored. That is why managing oneself increasingly leads one to begin a second career.
    3. There are three ways to develop a second career.
      1. The first is actually to start one. Often this takes nothing more than moving from one kind of organization to another: the divisional controller in a large corporation, for instance, becomes the controller of a medium-sized hospital. But there are also growing numbers of people who move into different lines of work altogether: the business executive or government official who enters the ministry at 45, for instance; or the midlevel manager who leaves corporate life after 20 years to attend law school and become a small-town attorney.
      2. The second way to prepare for the second half of your life is to develop a parallel career. Many people who are very successful in their first careers stay in the work they have been doing, either on a full-time or part-time or consulting basis. But in addition, they create a parallel job, usually in a nonprofit organization, that takes another ten hours of work a week.
      3. Finally, there are the social entrepreneurs. These are usually people who have been very successful in their first careers. They love their work, but it no longer challenges them. In many cases they keep on doing what they have been doing all along but spend less and less of their time on it. They also start another activity, usually a nonprofit.
  8. Conclusion

    1. Managing oneself demands that each knowledge worker think and behave like a chief executive officer. Further, the shift from manual workers who do as they are told to knowledge workers who have to manage themselves profoundly challenges social structure. Every existing society, even the most individualistic one, takes two things for granted, if only subconsciously: that organizations outlive workers, and that most people stay put. But today the opposite is true. Knowledge workers outlive organizations, and they are mobile. The need to manage oneself is therefore creating a revolution in human affairs.