Six Rules For the President-Elect

Posted on Nov 9, 2012 | 6 Comments

If you somehow missed the election news this week, we can inform you that Barack Obama was reelected president.

We were not blogging in this fashion during the last election in 2008, so the president-elect may well have missed out on our advice the last time around. But Peter Drucker often used presidents as case studies in leadership (both in success and failure), and in 1993, as Bill Clinton was settling into office, Drucker wrote up what he called “Six Rules For Presidents,” an essay that appears in Managing in a Time of Great Change.

Photo credit: Paola Frogheri

For Drucker, being an effective president meant abiding by the following:

1. “What must be done? is the first question the president must ask.” That might sound obvious, but in reality, as Drucker pointed out, many presidents are loath to recognize that “the world always changes between election day and inauguration day.” They have to readjust their priorities and often defer their original goals.

2. “Concentrate, don’t splinter yourself.” Drucker noted that there were always a dozen good answers to what needs to be done. “Yet,” he added, “unless the president makes the risky and controversial choice of only one, he will achieve nothing.”

3. “Don’t ever bet on a sure thing.” This is another way of saying don’t let success go to your head and overstretch.  Don’t, as FDR did, interpret your election landslide as a mandate to pack the Supreme Court.

4. “An effective president does not micromanage.” Jimmy Carter was known to handle things as minor as use of the White House tennis court. Don’t be your own chief operating officer. To avoid this, Drucker said, a president “needs a small team of highly disciplined people, each with clear operating responsibility for one area.”

5. “A president has no friends in the administration.” That is a rule that very, very few presidents have followed, but Drucker considered it crucial to avoid having buddies working for you. “At best, they are suspected of running around their official superiors and to their Great Friend,” Drucker wrote. “At worst, they are known as the president’s spies.” Teddy Roosevelt, for one, avoided this friend temptation.

6. “Once you’re elected you stop campaigning.” This, according to Drucker, was what Harry Truman told president-elect John F. Kennedy.  We suspect all Americans would welcome such a break now.

What do you think? What is the most important rule for an effective president to follow (either from Drucker’s list or your own)—and why?


  1. Maverick18
    November 9, 2012

    Several quotes from Nicollo Machiavelli seem appropriate:

    Re: Organizing the Government for a second term

    The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.

    Re: Domestic Policy

    The one who adapts his policy to the times prospers, and likewise that the one whose policy clashes with the demands of the times does not.

    Re: Foreign Policy

    First of all, be armed.

    Had the Romans followed these rules, we might all be hailing the Emporer.

  2. JMN
    November 9, 2012

    Make a habit of spending focused time everyday thinking about the people you are leading.

  3. Jon Miller
    November 10, 2012

    There are a lot of things that make being a President and even Politician hard these days–such as money and the conflicts of interest that go along with it, reelection, and media coverage. Media coverage grows as a challenge for our elected officials because they are always in the spotlight. There is a fear that whatever they say or do could effect their political career. We have seen plenty of this over the last several years, DEM & REP standing their ground. Is it because they are standing firm in what they believe in (hopefully the same thing that got them elected in the first place!) or a fear of the implications of how the Media will portray them? It is probably some of each, but it is human nature to want to keep one’s job and that is a challenge of being a politician and the media coverage intensifies this (they are talented but only human nonetheless).

    Once the election is over the President and all elected officials for that matter have to get to business and lead the country. Although the President is has the largest role in government he doesn’t have overall power on all areas so there needs to be a team effort. Media makes this increasingly difficult especially on our elected officials.

    The structure of government and business are different, our forefathers created it that way for specific reasons. But I think if you look at the successful business you will find practices of effective leadership–many of which Drucker felt strongly about–that could be applied to government as well. What our leader has to do is create an environment—find ways to minimize the challenges elected officials face– where all elected officials can be more effective and successful.

  4. Mike Grayson
    November 10, 2012

    I agree with Drucker that the most important thing that a President must do is ask, “What must be done?” However, I would begin by asking the question “What needs to be done?” and then after getting a list, deciding on “What must be done now?”

    During Hurricane Sandy I watched as Mayor Bloomberg walked with his staff and reporters in tow, through the streets of New York. At one point the residents were very angry and began to show their anger at him. His response was to hide behind one of his staff, ignore the crowd and quickly look for an exit. He reflected the epitomy of poor leadership at that moment. Not only was he incompetent, but a coward.

    Imagine if he had asked the simple question, “What needs to be done?” to the crowd, and then had his staff marshal the resources to help those desperate people? It would have been a very different outcome.

    This question is at the root to solving our problems as a nation. But it is only the beginning to solving the problem. Once this question is answered, the best strategy must be developed to achieve the desired outdome.

    Strategies convert what you want to do into an accomplishment. Planning is an intellectual exercise. You make decisions, take action, and analyze the results, make changes and take action again. It is the process of continually making decisions.

    The problem with strategic management in Washington is that there is none. They pass legislature and think “problem solved”, let’s move on to the next. Not a lot of time is spent in advance thinking about how they will analyze whether or not the strategy is working or not. And even less time is spent making changes based on the analysis. It is almost impossible to make changes in Washington.

    Maybe one day a student of Drucker’s teaching will occupy the White House.

  5. Alba Patricia Valencia
    November 10, 2012

    DRUKER’s rules are marvelous and they are important for an effective president. But the most important is coherence and consistency between thinking, speaking, acting because we should be one between being and doing.

  6. What Peter Drucker Would Be Reading | The Drucker Exchange | Daily Blog by The Drucker Institute
    November 13, 2012

    [...] Comment of the Week: Last week we reviewed Peter Drucker’s six rules for an effective president. When when asked readers if they had [...]


Leave a Reply