Strong People Always Have Strong Weaknesses Too

Peter Drucker? Wess Roberts? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: When selecting the head of an organization it is tempting to search for the perfect applicant who excels in everything, i.e., the mythical candidate without flaws. The following two statements provide a counterpoint perspective:

  • Strong people have strong weaknesses,
  • Strong chieftains always have strong weaknesses.

This adage is attributed to management guru Peter Drucker. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Peter F. Drucker’s 1967 book “The Effective Executive” included an anecdote in which President Abraham Lincoln was told that General Ulysses S. Grant was a flawed leader because he imbibed too much. Yet, Lincoln believed Grant was his most effective military man. According to legend Lincoln mischievously asked the detractors to tell him Grant’s favorite whiskey, so he could send a barrel to each of his other generals. QI investigated this entertaining yarn here.

Lincoln’s recognition that a powerful chief may have blemishes illustrated the point made by Drucker in the following passage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The idea that there are “well-rounded” people, people who have only strengths and no weaknesses . . . is a prescription for mediocrity if not for incompetence. Strong people always have strong weaknesses too. Where there are peaks, there are valleys.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The oxymoronic phrase “strong weaknesses” was in use before it was employed by Drucker. For example, a 1905 book about literary life in London applied the phrase to the Irish soldier and journalist John Augustus O’Shea and his predisposition to engage in pranks: 2

A trick of introducing people under wrong names was one of O’Shea’s “strong weaknesses,” and as a rule, he succeeded in “selling” his acquaintances. It was sometimes very disconcerting for the men who were wrongly labelled, and not unfrequently for the men who were deceived, when they happened to discover that they had been humbugged.

Drucker used the quotation under examination in 1967 as mentioned previously. The 1974 volume “How to Succeed in Business Without Being a Pagan” by Glen Hale Bump contained the saying ascribed to Drucker: 3

As Drucker says, “Whoever tries to place a man or staff an organization to avoid weaknesses will end . . . with mediocrity. . . . Strong people always have strong weaknesses too.

In 1976 “Drucker: The Man Who Invented the Corporate Society” by John J. Tarrant printed a variety of sayings from the guru including the following three: 4

A “generalist” is a specialist who can relate his own small area to the universe of knowledge.

Strong people always have strong weaknesses.

The question is not “how will he get along?” but “what will he contribute?”

In 1978 “The Official Rules” by Paul Dickson contained a section listing fifteen remarks from Drucker under the title “The Sayings of Chairman Peter”. Here were two items: 5

Strong people always have strong weaknesses.

Start with what is right rather than with what is acceptable.

In 1989 “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” by Wess Roberts appeared. A variant of Drucker’s remark was included. The following excerpt is from the appendix which summarized lessons from the book: 6

DEVELOPING CHIEFTAINS

Strong chieftains always have strong weaknesses. A king’s duty is to make a chieftain’s strengths prevail.

Huns learn less from success than they do from failure.

In conclusion, Peter Drucker deserves credit for the statement he penned in the 1967 book “The Effective Executive”. The phrasing has changed slightly over the years. Wess Roberts crafted a variant after Drucker’s remark was in circulation.

(Thanks to colleague Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Grothe mentioned the ascription to Drucker, and he wanted a solid citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1967, The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker, Chapter 4: Making Strength Productive, Quote Page 72, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1905, Twenty Years Ago: A Book of Anecdote Illustrating Literary Life in London by Edmund Downey, Chapter IV: Further Chronicles of Catherine Street, Quote Page 90, Hurst and Blackett, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1975 (1974 Copyright), How to Succeed in Business Without Being a Pagan by Glen Hale Bump, Chapter 2: Why You Don’t Have To Conform, Quote Page 27, Victor Books: A Division of SP Publications, Wheaton, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1976, Drucker: The Man Who Invented the Corporate Society by John J. Tarrant, Section: Appendix: The Sayings of Chairman Peter, Quote Page 258, Published by Cahners Books, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1978, The Official Rules by Paul Dickson, Section: Drucker, The Sayings of Chairman Peter, Quote Page 40, Delacorte Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1989, Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun by Wess Roberts Ph.D., Chapter: Attilaisms: Selected Thoughts of Attila, Quote Page 104, Warner Books, New York. (Verified with scans)