Black and White

Posted on Mar 2, 2012 | 12 Comments

Peter Drucker and Andrew Breitbart were both in the business of persuading people to act. But the similarities end there.

Breitbart, one of America’s foremost media provocateurs, died this week at the age of 43. A veteran of the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post, Breitbart launched several websites that promoted conservative, or at least anti-left, causes. His team launched stories and sting operations that were credited with, among other things, demolishing the nonprofit ACORN, bruising the National Endowment for the Arts and causing the resignation of now-former Congressman Anthony Weiner.

Breitbart’s means of persuasion were blunt, and his positions were firm, with minimal nuance and a maximum of black and white.

Notably, Drucker took a much different approach to his work. As we’ve noted, no one knew entirely how to peg him politically. A 1960 memo from a Richard Nixon aide described Drucker as a “former left-winger,” and a late 1970s book described him as a “liberal-from-the-right.”

In the late 1930s, when predicting the Hitler-Stalin pact, Drucker recalled that he “immediately became an enemy for the Communists and the fellow travelers.” In 1942, in the Future of Industrial Man, he wrote, “Every liberal movement, it is true, contains the seeds of a totalitarian philosophy—just as every conservative movement contains a tendency to become reactionary.”

Drucker spoke with reverence of Victorian economist Walter Bagehot, in whom he saw a kindred spirit. “Like Bagehot I see as central to society and to civilization the tension between the need for continuity (Bagehot called it ‘the cake of custom,’ I call it civilization) and the need for innovation and change,” Drucker wrote in The Ecological Vision. “Thus, I know what Bagehot meant when he said that he saw himself sometimes as a liberal Conservative and sometimes as a conservative Liberal but never as a ‘conservative Conservative’ or a ‘liberal Liberal.’”

This didn’t mean that Drucker was inconsistent. It did mean that he took a different approach from that of Breitbart in shaping the “cultural narrative.” All of Drucker’s arguments were nuanced, and nearly all of his assertions, especially concerning politics, acknowledged competing priorities and tensions. Whether that made them persuasive is another question—and our question of the day:

When it comes to influencing people, what works best: being relentlessly black and white, or acknowledging the gray? Why?


12 Comments

  1. Daniel Pacheco
    March 3, 2012

    There are some people who like direct communication. They want to be told things directly. It is black or white for them. If they made a fool of themselves they want to be directly told they made a fool of themselves. A spade has to be called spade. There are some people who are indirect communicators. They want to be told things indirectly. They have to be told things in a round about way. A spade has to be called a gardening instrument and not a spade. In his writings Peter Drucker was an indirect communicator. He stated the main point first in his title and opening lines. The he went in circular path drawing from different fields of knowledge to illustrate and reinforce the main point. Then he concluded by coming back to the main point. When it comes to influencing people be black and white with the direct communicators and be grey to the indirect communicators. I did not meet Peter Drucker when he came to Bangalore (India) but I have spoken to people who interacted with him and even spent the whole day with him and what they told me reinforces my view that Peter Drucker was an indirect communicator par excellence . If a person fell down and dropped a glass he would look at it from multiple viewpoints to come to a conclusion. Was the floor slippery, Was the glass slippery, was there something that distracted the person and made him lose control of the glass etc, etc etc. after completing his circle of grey communication he would move to a black and white conclusion.

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  2. Horst Lehrheuer
    March 3, 2012

    With the exception of some facts in our lives, people with a black-and-white vision of the world cling, I found, often to the myth of certainty, predictability, determinism, objectivism, and absolutism. Black-and-white thinking is usually an oversimplification of the world we live in or, even worse, a trivialization that is too often grounded in the absolutistic notion of ‘I am absolutely right’ and ‘you are absolutely wrong,’ regardless. In my view, Peter Drucker understood very well that we humans typically live in a “grey” (non-linear, dynamic, emerging) world in which black-and-white thinking only applies to very rare situations (like, I was born on this day). Other facts are usually determined by the mental models we humans create/invent in our minds and then apply (like mathematics). In my experience absolutistic black-and-white thinking and acting is usually very destructive, as in the case of Andrew Breitbart. Innovation (especially social innovation) is highly enhanced when we humans brake the molds of our often entrenched, conventional thinking, including the idea that the world we live in is just “black and white.”

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    • Bryan
      March 5, 2012

      I was fortunate to hear Peter Drucker speak on numerous occasions and share his thoughts on business and society. He did as Daniel Pacheco states often state an issue and then circle around it a few times before finally concluding by bringing everything together. There were times that I didn’t quite follow him until the end of his presentation when he would package everything together to reiterate his initial statements. In my view, Peter believed that some things were gray and other things must be black and white. For example, I believe Peter Drucker in his writings viewed a company’s purpose as something that MUST be black and white while other things in business and life may indeed be gray at least initially. Strongly held beliefs, values, goals, and purpose are the critical black and white things that guide us through the gray areas that will always arise.

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  3. Reggie
    March 3, 2012

    Black and white influence is needed when the organization is young and firm direction is needed, or when safety or survival is an issue. Gray influence works when organizations know their norms, are safely surviving and can afford to refine their ways or change them. Once norms have been reset, black and white influence must come back into play. In the evolution of an organization we should expect to go from an infancy of black and white to the maturity of gray in the context of establishing our identity. In the context of safety or survival, black and white influence is the best first reaction which may grow into gray influence with the distance of the organization’s life or death being more distant.

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  4. Maverick 18
    March 3, 2012

    Americans generally reject extremism. The notable exception is the high tolerance for religious dogma which is a continuing example of acceptance without proof of black and white ideas. I always say the pledge to the flag without the two extra words added during the Eisenhower Administration. It’s not that I don’t like G-D, it’s just that he told me that Church and State are absolutely separate.

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    • Bryan
      March 5, 2012

      I agree that most people reject extremism. One of the blessings of the United States is that the Constitution starts by acknowledging the right of people to have Freedom of Religion. In other words, people are free to choose to practice whatever religion they believe or to not practice any religion at all (i.e. Atheist). In the Constitution, the government is prohibited from establishing a national religion (remember many came from England where the King dictated to the people that they had to be his religion or would be persecuted). However, the founders never intended religion to be absolutely separate. Reading many of the founding documents of our country, you will see many references to God and religion even on our currency which states “In God We Trust”. As a matter of fact, religion has always been considered a vital part of the United States with the vast majority of Americans being religious – some practicing, some not. It is true that religion requires faith and often involves issues that some would consider gray. It is my hope that Maverick 18 continues to be free to choose to not believe in or embrace God just as others are free to believe without fear of being forced by government to do things that they believe to be sinful. I also hope that those that think God and religion should be banned from public places recognize the positive impacts that various religions have had on people as well as the historical significance of Christian values in the founding of this country (which is why many of our institutions have religious symbols like the cross reflecting the moral teachings that encourage people and society to act in ways that benefit all).

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  5. Mike Grayson
    March 4, 2012

    When I think of influence, I think of Dale Carnegie, who wrote “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, said “If you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the beehive”. However, Peter Drucker had many thoughts on the subject, and in many cases, I think, much more fundamental than Carnegie.

    Carnegie’s best observation about influence is what he called “the secret of Socrates”, which is “In talking to people, don’t begin by discussing the things on which you differ. Begin by emphasizing – and keep on emphasizing – the things on which you agree.” The idea here is, to establish common ground, something the President and Congress need to learn.

    Drucker had an extremely keen sense of how important it is to strategically build relationships, in order to solve problems, but he talked in more practical terms about communication, “In communicating, whatever the medium, the first question has to be, Is this communication within the recipient’s range of perception? Can he receive it?” It is a more fundamental question, than even those presented by Carnegie.

    Drucker wrote, “There is no possibility of communication, in other words, unless we first know what the recipient, the true communicator, can see and why.” “Before we can communicate, we must, therefore, know what the recipient expects to see and hear.” “If, in other words, communication fits in the aspirations, the values, th purposes of the recipient, it is powerful. If it goes against his aspirations, his values, his motivations, it is likely not to be received at all or, at best, to be resisted.”

    Drucker goes on to say that the most powerful communication brings about a change in personality, values, and beliefs. It is translated into action and results.

    Being relentlessly black or white will influence those who already share your values, but is likely to be resisted or rejected by those who do not.

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  6. Greg Zerovnik
    March 4, 2012

    My Congressman, David Dreier, recently announced his retirement. His new district was changing boundaries and he is losing much of his Republican base for a more Asian and Hispanic ethnic mix that tends to lean very Democratic. When Congresswoman Grace Napolitano announced she would run in the new district, I think David knew it was time to go. Both David and Grace have been really fine examples of representative democracy in action. It has been my privilege to meet and speak (all too briefly) with both of them. In a recent interview, David said some things I feel Grace would agree with, that politics is the art of compromise, and that while one must never compromise one’s principles (the black and white part), one must compromise (the shades of gray) in order to see that things get done. (I don’t mean to put words in Congresswoman Napolitano’s mouth, I am only venturing an opinion based on my observations).

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  7. Alba Patricia Valencia
    March 4, 2012

    What works best is the power because the power for what you can do.

    Lo que funciona mejor es el poder porque el poder es para poder.

    Reply
  8. The Feedback | The Drucker Exchange
    March 6, 2012

    [...] We also considered the career of the late Andrew Breitbart, a master of communicating in black and white, and asked whether black-and-white or gray is most effective when it comes to influencing people. [...]

    Reply
  9. George L. Williams
    March 7, 2012

    My senior paper for Peter was on this topic. He called my secretary and left the message that it was among the best papers he had read. I was hired into Boeing under very difficult circumstances that required painstaking efforts over a couple of years to circumvent a conspiracy to defeat the hiring.

    It was exactly my success at “searching for and finding common ground” with enough people within the company to defeat the conspiracy.

    Reply
  10. George L. Williams
    March 7, 2012

    My research paper for Peter was on this topic. He called my secretary and left the message that it was among the best papers he had read. I was hired into Boeing under very difficult circumstances that required painstaking efforts over a couple of years to circumvent a conspiracy to defeat the hiring.

    It was exactly my success at “searching for and finding common ground” with enough people within the company to defeat the conspiracy.

    Reply

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