Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Review: Adventures of a Bystander

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As I have noted previously, the world could do without most business books – certainly the ones written today. However, we can find considerable business wisdom in some of the business books of the past, and even in many non-business books. Given this situation, I find it valuable to review books written long ago. This post contains the first, but readers will see many more books of the past reviewed on Capitolism in the future.

Peter Drucker wrote Adventures of a Bystander in the late-1970s as a sort of memoir. He figures not as the main character, but usually as an observer of others. This explains the title, and, to a certain extent, his life as well. Mr. Drucker rarely managed in organizations himself, or took action, or made business decisions. He keenly observed others doing those actions, and reflected profoundly on their successes, mistakes and failures. He states as much early in the book: “Bystanders reflect – and reflection is a prism rather than a mirror.”Mr. Drucker selects curious moments and people as subjects for his reflections: his grandmother; his childhood teachers; early bosses. His reflections on his life in Vienna just before and after World War I are especially poignant and offer readers a window in a world long gone.  Other poignant passages include the decimation of a whole generation of European leadership in World War I. Indeed, history tells us World War II came about, in part if not primarily, because of failed leadership on the part of men who could have stopped it. Those men became leaders because others, including some of their betters, had perished. The survivors also faced untold mental and emotional anguish – from their very survival, from their experiences, from the whole ordeal. That also affected their abilities to make sound, wise decisions.

His reflections roam across subjects and disciplines. He challenges the conventional wisdom that people learn most from failure when he reports that he learns more from successes. His greater point: learn how you learn, and give yourself opportunities to learn in the best way for you throughout your career and life. Mr. Drucker later blisters Sigmund Freud’s theories, but lays out the man as a ‘tragic hero’ whose life and work, while deeply flawed, teaches supremely human lessons.

As a Shakespeare fan, I must comment on his note that Cymbeline is his favorite Shakespeare play. It is a curious, odd choice. Theatre companies rarely produce the play; the Royal Shakespeare Company has performed it just a few times in the last 40 years.  The question struck me as I read: why would Drucker like Cymbeline above all other of Shakespeare’s plays? An answer eludes me, but the question remains a good one.

While Adventures of a Bystander observes well-known people and events – Freud, Henry Luce, Hitler, General Motors, among others – the read treasures in the book lie in its introduction of the unfamiliar. I had never even heard of Karl Polyani, his book, The Great Transformation, or its key ideas. But because of Mr. Drucker, I have encountered them, pondered them and can delve further into them.

He also challenges readers and their perceptions. His questioning of the changes in attitude toward symbols and real objects of substance, at the end of the chapter on ‘Ernest Freedberg’s World,’ provide some of the most piercing critique of the modern world I have read. His observation that “[t]he single-minded ones, the monomaniacs, are the true achievers” flies in the face of much accepted modern wisdom. His thoughts on the civil rights movement in America almost disturb the reader.

Throughout, we find a man intimately and intensely engaged in his world with incredible intellectual rigor. Again, we rarely see a man of action, although that does come through at times. We find a man perpetually fascinated by the world and people around him, yet also aware enough to not lose himself purely in the world of ideas.  Moreover, we find Mr. Drucker’s adventures as adventuresome as he found them. They draw the reader in, they compel the reader to reflect and to engage. In short, Mr. Drucker challenges readers to be bystanders themselves. But, like him, they should do so critically, uncompromisingly and creatively.


Written by Russell S.

January 3, 2010 at 11:31 pm

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