Mentoring Through Friendship

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“Friendships mark our lives, but rarely do we get to peek in on the lives of great men through the prism of friendship.” —Ed Stetzer

Bob Buford is the cable-network wunderkind who, sometime in the roaring 1970s, boldly sought out Peter Drucker as a personal consultant. Decades later they were close friends and, alongside Bob, the genius of management was helping a swath of leaders like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren conceive and build independent “pastoral” churches—islands of strength, Peter called them. (The “megachurch” title came later.)

In his book, Drucker & Me, Bob reveals the personal void that compelled him to seek out Peter Drucker, how a contract faded into friendship, and the surprising story of the business mastermind who helped a new breed of church “produce” changed lives.


THE HIGH CALLING (THC): For people who know about Peter Drucker—and that’s almost anyone in business—his impact is a given. But for the uninitiated, will you contrast the world before Peter Drucker and after?

Bob Buford (BB): Before Peter Drucker, a person went to wherever he had a job and did that job, almost learning by apprenticeship, never seeing management as an entire system. After Peter Drucker management is a discipline, an art, an entire business degree, the subject of hundreds, maybe thousands of books.

THC: And though he was known for revolutionary ideas about workers, innovation, and decentralized power, you would say that few people really knew him.

BB: A lot of books have been written by Peter, and about his ideas, but none of them say much about Peter as a person. I wanted readers to know the actual Peter. We spent hundreds of hours together, I had a thousand pages of transcripts.

I wanted a relational book—and also just the story of a young kid whose father died when he was in the fifth grade, and whose only son died at age 24. And, though I never presumed to say it to Peter, he filled that void that the world’s most perfect father might fill for me. It’s why Alexander sought out Aristotle; he just brought a whole other dimension to my life.

THC: But, respectfully, how in the world did the author of Concept of a Corporation, consultant to IBM, Microsoft . . .P&G, agree to spend time with you? And where did you get the idea to call him?

BB: When I was about 27 years old, my mother died, and I suddenly had to learn the facts of managing a couple of small TV stations. I read everything I could find on business, but most of it was trendy and shallow. Peter was comprehensive and value-oriented. He focused the business on the customer rather than on making money. I thought he was the most intelligent man on earth as it came to the issue of a functioning society and, particularly, the interaction of people in the course of trying to get something done.

One day I picked up the phone and called him. When he agreed to meet, he told me to send him a long and rambling letter about everything I wanted to know, and that became our procedure.

The first time I went to his house in Claremont, just one on one, he struck me as someone on Mt. Olympus, monumental. I was honored to have even one hour with him. But he greeted me warmly and simply wanted to uncover what I wanted to know.

His gift, his basic technique, was to ask questions and respond. Of course, nothing could stump his encyclopedic memory. And whenever I was with him, he was focused. If the minister of Japan called, the minister would have to wait until my meeting ended. It’s how Peter operated. He focused on the person seeking out his wisdom. I was blown away.

THC: You say frequently, in many ways, that Peter was head and shoulders above anyone else you knew. What set him apart?

BB: First of all, he could enter any environment and learn from it at least five to ten times more than any ordinary person. He wasn’t preoccupied with himself, as most of us are. He could see things as they were, and not through his bias.

Another important thing—part of his observation skills—is in the opening pages of Peter’s book “Adventures of a Bystander.” He was in school and marching in a parade, carrying a flag for a political rally, when it came to him that he wasn’t destined for that. He dropped out of the parade and became an observer of the parade.

The other thing Peter didn’t suffer from—and I mean he really didn’t—was prejudice. The average person prejudges everything according to left, right, Tea Party, wealth, color . . . family. And he was kind of free of all that.

Also, he was incredibly precise about words. He’d do something no one on television ever does: he’d pause to think. Peter would pause and you could see him change his words as a result of thinking. If your mouth is just wagging away, you can’t observe, can you?

THC: What did he observe in your life?

BB: After eight years of work together, he told me my mission in a single sentence: “To transform the latent energy of American Christianity into active energy.”

I didn’t get it the first time. I was walking along a road in East Texas when I said, “Whoa!” And I wrote his words on the back of a Winston cigarette carton. (The insides are very nice to write on, and I did have a pen.) He said, “At this stage in your life”—you know, he’s a great fan of innovation, so what works in one stage doesn’t in another—“it’s our job to release and direct energy, not to supply it.”

That encapsulates everything I’m at work on still. In Leadership Network, which serves pastors, and in Halftime—the university for our second half of life—we don’t supply energy to people, we work with people to release and direct it.

THC: What did you learn from Peter about mentoring?

BB: I learned that I want to spend the rest of my life doing for others what he did for me. I can tell you what he gave me in four words: Permission. Encouragement. Applause (or course correction). Accountability.

After a while, that “long rambling letter” became my performance report. I’m not sure he would have allowed me access, at least in the early going, if I had no results. But my results were his results.

THC: But, why you? Peter knew some of the world’s most influential people. Alfred P. Sloan. Marshall McLuhan. Bill Gates. World changers. He consulted with top, top corporations. What explains your friendship?

BB: I think I was a good student. I think I really, really understood what he was saying in writing and in person, and then I went and did it. It wasn’t like a seminar where you’re with someone for a day and he has a script or curriculum—it wasn’t like that at all. He was always a long-range thinker and he could see things no one else could that turned out to be true, 10 and 20 years later. He had that ability and few people do, and I just was the fan of all fans.

A mentor’s fruit grows on other people’s trees, and he saw the fruit.


Nancy Lovell is a writer and principal of Lovell-Fairchild Communications, which specializes in marketing and public relations.

Image by Darlene. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.

Show Me the Way

The BusinessWeek article, The Misery of Mentoring Millenials suggests that “For a new generation of workers, the idea of seeking out a single career confidant is…old-fashioned.”

Perhaps this represents more of a shift from single mentorship to communal mentorship than it is a shirking of wisdom altogether. In this series at The High Calling, Show Me the Way, we're addressing this topic as well as the broader meaning of the phrase. Join us for Bible reflections, featured articles, and discussion. Invite your colleagues to do the same. Our hope is that even the most professionally independent among us will remember the power of sage advice as we serve the Lord in our jobs.