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The Effective Executive Summary – Peter F. Drucker

Arthur Worsley
by Arthur Worsley
M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.
The Effective Executive Summary
The Effective Executive (1966)
The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done

by Peter F. Drucker

THE timeless classic on leadership and management; on getting the right things done – by the dean of business and management philosophy, Peter F. Drucker.

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This book summary is part of an ongoing project to summarise ~70 books on Productivity - for more, see the full reading list.

Perfect for you if:

  • You work in or are building a large organisation;
  • You never seem to complete your most important tasks;
  • You’re want to become a better leader and decision maker.

The Effective Executive Review

The Effective Executive is a must-read for anyone making big decisions in their organisations. It’s a wonderful, thought-provoking self-help book that’s as relevant and insightful today as it was back in 1966.

Drucker’s overall thesis is this:

  1. Society has made (and is still making) a huge shift from manual to knowledge-based work since the mid 20th Century;
  2. This shift involves a dramatic increase in the number of executives (decision-makers) in the workforce; and
  3. Our success (as individuals, organisations and societies) depends on how well this increase is accomplished.

In short: We need far more executives.

But there’s more to the problem than headcount.

The executive’s job, Drucker argues, isn’t just to turn up and get busy. The executive’s job is to make decisions that significantly impact the entire organisation’s performance. The executive’s job is to deliver outstanding results.

To do this job well, executives need to upgrade their skills. Executives can and must learn to be more effective.

This is the problem The Effective Executive sets out to help each of us tackle.

It’s a short, well-written book whose power comes as much from its parables and practical checklists as the questions it encourages us to ask.

If you’ve read it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

If you haven’t read it yet, go grab a copy.

And in either case, thank you for being here and I hope you enjoy this free summary.

The Effective Executive Summary

I’ve structured this summary to answer three questions…

  1. Why do we need effective executives?
  2. What makes an effective executive? and
  3. How can executives be more effective?

Read on, or click one of the links above to skip to a question below.

1. Why do we need effective executives?

Society’s changing demands have driven the rise of large, complex organisations.

We depend on those organisations as…

  • Actors (economic, government, healthcare, education); and
  • Employers.

We need effective executives to build effective organisations; to integrate individual, organisational and societal goals.

But we also need effective organisations to train and fill the increasing demand for effective executives.

It’s a chicken and egg problem.

But the only thing we can directly control is our own self-development.

Effectiveness must be learned.

And change starts with each of us doing what we can to become a more effective executive.

2. What makes an effective executive?

An ineffective executive:

  • Focuses on problems;
  • Lacks clear goals, directions or values; and
  • Does a little bit of everything.

An effective executive:

  1. Knows where their time goes – Brings what they can under control;
  2. Focusses on outward contribution – Focus on outputs (“What results are expected?”) instead of inputs (“What work can be done?”);
  3. Build on strengths (Own, superiors, colleagues, subordinates, situations); on what can be done;
  4. Concentrates efforts – Decides and sticks to the ONE area where superior performance will produce outstanding results; and
  5. Makes effective decisions – Focuses on a few, fundamental strategic questions and embraces dissenting opinions.

Effectiveness (👆) spans mechanics, attitudes, values and character; it spans procedure and commitment.

Each of those things can be developed. Each lies within our control.

Effectiveness can be learned.

3. How can executives become more effective?


We are not naturally good at managing time.

And as executives get more senior they:

  • Lose more and more direct control over their time; and
  • Spend more time just keeping the organisation together.

The effective executive takes control of what discretionary time they have left.

To take control of your time, you must:

  • Record time – keep a time log.
  • Analyse and optimise the results:
    • Eliminate low impact activities;
    • Eliminate activities others could do just as well, if not better;
    • Eliminate ways you waste other people’s time (ask them);
  • Solve common time-wasters:
    • Eliminate recurring crises;
    • Eliminate overstaffing;
    • Eliminate meetings;
    • Improve information:
      • Accuracy – Is it right?
      • Delivery – Is it useable?
  • Consolidate discretionary time into the largest time-units possible:
    • Estimate available discretionary time;
    • Set it aside in a continuous amount by e.g.,
      • Working at home one day per week;
      • Scheduling meetings for:
        • Specific days (e.g., Monday and Friday); and/or
        • Times (i.e., afternoons)


The effective executive focuses on results rather than effort.

To get clear on what results matter:

  • Ask yourself: “What can I contribute that will significantly affect the performance and results of the institution I serve?
  • Ask your colleagues: “What contribution do you need from me to make your contribution to the organisation? When do you need this? How do you need it? And in what form?

To maximise contribution, work on:

  • Communication – Instead of telling subordinates, ask them “What are the contributions for which this organisation and I, your superior, should hold you accountable? What should we expect of you? What is the best utilisation of your knowledge and your ability?
  • Teamwork – Think sideways; ask “Who has to use my output for it to become effective?”;
  • Self-development – Ask “What self-development do I need? What knowledge and skills do I have to acquire to make the contribution I should be making? What strength do I have to put to work? What standards do I have to set myself?”; and
  • Development of others – Lead by example.

To keep meetings focussed on contribution:

  • Insist that the purpose of a meeting is spelled out before it is called; ask “Why are we having this meeting:
    • To brainstorm ideas?
    • To reach a decision?
    • To inform? or
    • To clarify next steps?
  • Designate a facilitator to direct and listen but not to take part.
  • Have the facilitator state the purpose at the outset and keep things on purpose.


Staff for strength:

  1. Look out for impossible jobs – Break any job that defeats 2 competent people into more specialised roles.
  2. Make each job demanding – Be sure it challenges the strength and abilities of the person who fills it.
  3. Appraise potential candidates on strengths – Ask:
    1. What have they done well?
    2. What, therefore, are they likely to be able to do well?
    3. What do they have to learn of acquire to get the full benefit from his strength?
    4. If I had a son or daughter, would I be willing to have him or her work under this person? Why?
  1. Manage weaknesses:
    • In individuals:
      • Accept that where there are peaks, there are valleys;
      • Focus on strengths relevant to performance of the task;
      • Use the organisation to compensate individual weaknesses;
      • Overcome weaknesses that inhibit strengths through work and career opportunities.
    • In organisations:
      • Appoint the best person for the role, even if “indispensable” elsewhere and
      • Remove anyone who does not perform with high distinction; but
      • Do not blame them – a bad appointment is the fault of the appointer, not the appointee.

Build on your boss’s strengths – Ask:

  • “What can my boss do really well?”
  • “What have they done really well?”
  • “What do they need to know to use this strength?”
  • “What do they need to get from me to perform?”

Build on your own strengths.

  • Be yourself – embrace your strengths and your weaknesses;
  • Ask – “What are the things I can do with relative ease?” then…
  • Do more of that – Feed the opportunities. Starve the problems.


The effective executive:

  • Does first things first; and
  • Does one thing at a time.

To do so, they:

  1. Let go of the past; of activities that are no longer productive:
    • They ask – “If we did not already do this, would we go into it now?
    • If the answer isn’t “Hell yes!”, they get out of (or curtail) it fast.
  1. Focus on opportunities – treat other criteria as qualifiers rather than determinants;
  2. Focus on ONE task at a time – then review the situation and pick the next ONE task that comes first;
  3. Choose their own direction – rather than climb on the bandwagon; 
  4. Aim high (for something that will make a difference) – rather than do something ‘safe’ and easy.


The effective executive acts:

  • Quickly – Within a few days, at most a few weeks; and
  • Decisively – Without hedging or compromise.

But their success depends on making effective decisions. To do so, they ask:

  1. “Is this a generic situation or an exception? What is the underlying root cause?” – The generic has to be answered by a rule or policy, the true exception (though rare) as it comes. 
  2. Is a decision really necessary?
    • Will the situation degenerate if we do nothing?” if not…
    • Do the benefits greatly outweigh the risks?
  1. What are we measuring?” – What (alternative) measurements are appropriate and relevant?
  2. What goals (or boundary) conditions is the decision trying to accomplish?” – The more clarity, the higher the chance of success.
  3. What does everyone think?” – Dialogue, dissension and disagreement lead to better decisions than consensus; they avoid pandering, generate alternatives and stimulate imagination;
  4. What do we have to know to test the validity of each hypothesis?” – What facts would make each opinion tenable?
  5. What is right?” – Rather than “What is acceptable to others?
  6. What are the next actions?
    • Who has to know?
    • What action needs taking?
    • Who will take it?
    • What does the action have to be so that the people who have to do it can do it?
  1. How will we know if the decision is being executed and working?” – How can we build feedback into the decision (TIP: Go see for yourself).

The Effective Executive Quotes

These Effective Executive quotes come from TANQThe Art of Living‘s growing central library of thoughts, anecdotes, notes, and inspirational quotes.

“The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail. He can only be helped. But he must direct himself, and he must direct himself towards performance and contribution, that is toward effectiveness.”

— Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive

“The truly important events on the outside are not the trends. They are changes in the trends.”

— Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive

“The man who focusses on efforts and who stresses his downward authority is a subordinate no matter how exalted his title and rank. But the man who focusses on contribution and who takes responsibility for results no matter how junior, is, in the most literal sense of the phrase, ‘top management. He holds himself accountable for the performance of the whole.”

— Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive

“It is just as risky, just as arduous, and just as uncertain to do something small that is new, as it is to do something big that is new. It is more productive to convert an opportunity into results than to solve a problem – which only restores the equilibrium of yesterday.”

— Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive

“Meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.”

— Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive

“All military services have long ago learned that the officer who has given an order goes out and sees for himself whether it has been carried out. At the least he sends one of his own aides—he never relies on what he is told by the subordinate to whom the order was given. Not that he distrusts the subordinate; he has learned from experience to distrust communications.”

— Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive

“People inevitably start out with an opinion; to ask them to search for the facts first is even undesirable. They will simply do what everyone is far too prone to do anyhow: look for the facts that fit the conclusion they have already reached.”

— Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive
Arthur Worsley
I founded TAoL to discover and share the best wisdom on how to live long and prosper. Before that I studied Psychology, Philosophy & Physiology at Oxford and consulted at McKinsey. Still curious? Learn more or take my FREE productivity quiz.

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