Peter Drucker never said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (and other quotes famous people didn’t say)

By Dean Foust

Peter Drucker was a legendary management theorist whose writings have lived on long after his death. As a writer, editor, and bureau chief for BusinessWeek, I once had the good fortune to interview Drucker for an article on leadership.

And during my second career as a speechwriter and coach, I’ve had countless executives who asked me to include Peter Drucker’s famous quote that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”.

I dutifully added the line into the speech until, one day, I decided to track down the quote to better understand what Drucker meant. What I found is that …

… Drucker never said it.

My source? The Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University.

Who coined that aphorism is unclear, but the evidence suggests it was either Steve Jobs or long-time GE CEO Jack Welch.

I am a big believer in quoting famous people in speeches. As I tell the speakers I write for and coach, quoting Richard Branson or Margaret Thatcher lifts you to their level, if just for the moment. I also believe in double-checking the legitimacy of every quote—a task that separates serious speechwriters from the rest.

Unfortunately, there are so many sayings that have been misattributed over the centuries as the aura around famous people like Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson has grown to almost-mythical proportions. British gnomologist Nigel Rees jokingly wrote that the First Law of Quotations is, “When in doubt, ascribe all quotations to George Bernard Shaw. Except when they obviously derive from Shakespeare, the Bible, or Kipling.”

The problem will only worsen with the proliferation of clickbait websites that use AI bots to create and publish dozens or even hundreds of articles a day. These AI-written articles are riddled with inaccuracies—including made-up quotes that famous people never said.

Here are 14 more quotes that many executive speakers addressing business audiences have misattributed over time. (If you really want to use these quotes in a speech, I suggest citing them without attribution, as in, “There’s a famous saying that…”)

PETER DRUCKER

Let’s stay with Drucker, because you might be surprised how many “Drucker-isms” were created by others:

“What gets measured gets managed.”

The true author was Simon Caulkin, a columnist who was summarizing a 1956 paper by V.F. Ridgway criticizing popular measurement practices. What Caulkin wrote: “What gets measured gets managed—even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so.”

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

The Drucker Institute says the phrase most likely originated from the computer scientist Alan Kay who said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

Management professor Warren Bennis, who did fireside chats with Drucker, may be the rightful owner. Bennis said that “successful CEOs see themselves as leaders, not managers. They were concerned … not with ‘doing things right, but with ‘doing the right thing.’ ” In his book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” self-help author Stephen Covey credits both Drucker and Bennis.

JEFF BEZOS

“A brand is what people say about you when you leave the room.”

An inspiring quote, and very true, but there is no documentary evidence that Bezos said it.

 

 

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Sorry, Al. You deserve credit for your Theory of Relativity, but not this nugget of wisdom. Some believe the quote originated at the Al-Anon chapter in East Tennessee, as a counter to participants who believed they could beat alcoholism on their own. 

Three other Einstein-isms that he never said were:

“Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.”

Correct source unknown.

“You do not understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” 

Possible source: Kurt Vonnegut, who said, “Any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.”

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” 

Best guess is sociology professor William Bruce Cameron, in his 1963 textbook, “Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking.” In it, Cameron wrote: “It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

MAHATMA GANDHI

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

According to the New York Times, Gandhi himself never said this. What he actually said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him. We need not wait to see what others do.”

Believe it or not, this passage appeared in an article Gandhi wrote about snake bites. Gandhi wrote that having a pure body and soul would prevent animal attacks—pointing to the ability of Indian mystics and ascetics to live among tigers, jaguars, and snakes as his evidence.

Some believe the true author is, improbable as it sounds, Arleen Lorrance, a Brooklyn high school teacher who co-authored a book titled The Love Principles.

WAYNE GRETZKY

“Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is.”

A whole generation of business leaders—including Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs—have quoted hockey legend Wayne Gretzky on the need to anticipate future trends before other companies. 

Problem is that it was Gretzky’s father, Walter, who said this. He also said it doesn’t apply to professional hockey players—just youngsters trying to learn the sport. “That advice is strictly for little kids,” he once said. ‘It’s just simple basics, like the ABCs. You have to know the alphabet before you can write. And naturally, going to where the puck is going is something that pros take for granted—or they wouldn’t be playing professionally.”

NICOLO MACHIAVELLI

“The end justifies the means.”

Machiavelli introduces the concept in The Prince, but never uses those words. He did say, “One must consider the final result,” which isn’t the same. In “Heroides II,” written 1,500 years earlier, the Roman poet Ovid writes, “Exitus acta probat,” which translates to “the outcome justifies the means.”

 

 

Churchill was given so much credit for things he never said that Rees, the gnomologist, coined the phrase “Churchillian Drift” to describe the process “whereby the originator of a quotation is elbowed to one side and replaced by someone more famous.” Here’s one example of a Churchill-ism that business speakers often use incorrectly:

“Success is not final, Failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Possible correct source: Don Shula, the legendary coach of the Miami Dolphins football team.

THOMAS EDISON

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

Edison never said it. (He also didn’t invent the light bulb. Look it up.)

An English lit professor, Kate Sanborn, is believed to have first delivered the line, “Talent is perspiration,” during a series of 1890s lectures on the topic, “What is Genius.” Sanborn was criticized in a newspaper editorial for stating the blindingly obvious. But when Edison followed with “2% is genius and 98% is hard work,” he was hailed for his, well, genius. 

Add it to the long line of things that women said, created, or invented that men took the credit for.

MAYA ANGELOU

“People may forget what you say. People may forget what you do. But people will never forget how you make them feel.” 

Angelou has been cited by many people—including me (!)—to make the case for human connection, particularly in communications. I’ve quoted Angelou to convince executives I’m coaching on the importance of using stories that elicit emotion, rather than dry statistics, to win over their audiences. 

But there’s no proof that Angelou said it. The true author was Carl W. Buehner, a high-level official in the Mormon Church, and included in Richard Evans’ Quote Book.

The moral of this story, if there is one, is that you have to factcheck the source of famous quotes, facts, and statistics—particularly if you saw it online. Because as Abraham Lincoln himself once said, “The problem with quotes found on the Internet is that they are often not true.”

I offer an array of executive communications services, including speechwriting and presentation coaching. If you’d like a free, 15-minute consultation, email me at dean@inspirentcomms.com or contact me here.

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