The most powerful advice I ever received for my business, and my blog

By Mark Schaefer

I was recently asked by an interviewer, “Who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?” Pretty good question! But the answer was easy. In fact, there was one lesson I learned from one man that has had a profound impact on my approach to life, my business, and my blog. I’ll share that important lesson with you today.

Sensei and sensibility

When I lived in Los Angeles, I desperately wanted to attend the MBA program at Claremont Graduate University for one reason — Peter Drucker taught there (in fact, the school was named for him). If you have never heard of Peter Drucker, discovering his books and articles might be the most important thing you can do for your career.

I applied for entry to the college, but was told I was too young to be accepted to this prestigious program. I would not quit that easily, however, and went through an appeal process, arguing that they needed my youth (27 at the time) to add to the diversity of the program! I made an unlikely stand on the grounds of EEO, which was quite a stretch, but incredibly, I was admitted! Perhaps my tenacity amused them.

Peter Drucker was one of the handful of people I have known who could distill vast complexity into simple wisdom. The scope of his knowledge was breathtaking. He would sit on the edge of his desk and lecture for three hours straight without a break, and without notes. He generally lectured about one of his books. My favorite was Innovation and Entrepreneurship a remarkable book that still holds up today.

A new approach to leadership

Professor Drucker taught via the Harvard case study method. We would be assigned to read a long, detailed, real-life business case and then dissect it in class to discover the true nature of how business worked.

The students in this class were high-flyers — the brightest business executives in the Los Angeles region — and they were always trying to “solve” the business case.  Nothing made Professor Drucker angrier than that! “What makes you think you are smarter than the people in the case?” he would ask, “Smarter than people who have worked in this industry for decades? How can you be that arrogant?

“Your job as a business leader is not to provide the right answers. It is to provide the right questions.”

Over and over he would pound this truth into our heads until it became part of our DNA. And he was so right … so profoundly right. There is not a week that goes by that I don;t think of some lesson from Professor Drucker, but this was the most important of all.

Think of the power of leading people to the most effective solution, not by pontificating and telling them what to do, but by distilling the issue down to the essential question and letting them discover the answer themselves.

Adopting a strategy of professional humility is anathema to our modern Western culture.  We may associate humility with weakness, when in fact it is strength.

The essence of blogging?

Like most young people starting out in business, I felt a need to know all the answers, especially when I was promoted to a leadership position. But from Professor Drucker I learned that being vulnerable, involving others in the process, coming up with a better solution together, sharing the weight of decisions – those are all benefits of humility.  Being deeply human, instead of trying to wear the Superman cape, is powerful and liberating.

This is also a key to effective blogging I think. Most bloggers adopt a mantle of invincibility and that is certainly the easy path to take: “I publish, therefor I’m correct.”

But being a humble blogger leads to meaningful social media engagement and ultimately, crowd-sourced wisdom.  I almost never have the answers. But I think my blog posts do present the essential questions: Does every business need a social media strategy?  What is the value of social media engagement?  How do we measure success?

And then YOU provide the answers through your comments. A much better system, don’t you think? How could I possibly sustain this blog for the last four years by only giving you answers? Nobody is that smart.

I hope this resonates with you in some small way. How does this idea land on you? Could being a humble leader become a key to making you a better leader, a better parent, a better blogger?

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Photograph courtesy Claremont Graduate University

Link to Innovation and Entrepreneurship is an affiliate link.

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  • Paul Jackson

    Fantastic blog and so so true.

  • I often say the best part of being in my forties is the security age brings. I haven’t any problem admitting that I don’t know everything and that there are endless opportunities to learn.

    However I have also noticed that in some areas I have to work harder to keep my eyes open to learning, but those are usually areas where I have extensive experience and feel like I have earned my stripes.

    Still I try to remind myself how easy it is to blind ourselves to opportunity and end up falling off of the log we are standing upon.

  • Charlotte Garin

    It resonates a LOT. Especially as I feel I am expected to KNOW everything about anything in my current job. So I’ll definitely start just asking questions, and I’ll let you know how it went 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

  • MrTonyDowling

    Brilliant post Mark! I studied Prof Drucker (from afar) for my marketing degrees.
    And what a great lesson in leadership this post is.
    I think the one thing I (personally) must guard against is providing answers to the people I work with.
    Its so easy with 20 plus years of experience to short circuit the issues a sales person is facing for instance, and give them the answers. But I have to remind myself that they then lose all the opportunities of making the mistakes that I did to ‘earn’ the knowledge in the first place!
    I’d much rather people bring my solutions, but the trick is to remember that in the ‘heat’ of the business day!

  • Hi Mark, great post – I like this bit especially: “Think of the power of leading people to the most effective solution, not by pontificating and telling them what to do, but by distilling the issue down to the essential question and letting them discover the answer themselves.” I would guess this is what “Show, don’t tell” really means!
    Giving answers can be way easier if that’s what you’re used to. A novice at ‘asking (the right) questions’ might end up asking questions in such a way that their own opinion is quite clear. Which is worse than just telling people what you think. So indeed, don’t presume to know anything better – keep professional arrogance out.

  • EB

    Mark – first let me say it’s always great to see another Claremont person. I went to CMC myself, and my wife went to scripps.

    Second, this notion of collaborating to arrive at a better solution resonates squarely with me. In the management consulting world, as in most professions I assume, we find that not only do people not being lectured, but even if you have a great solution, not involving your key stakeholders in the journey guarantees that solution a swift death once you’ve left that client behind.

    This also reminds of the show Who Wants to be a Millionaire where asking the audience outperformed every other lifeline. That’s no coincidence…I’m just saying.

  • tianakai

    And so it comes full circle. Your strategy/mindset works and you clearly see that in the quality of your comments. Being humble is a unique and respectable trait, which I hope to learn from, maybe adding a bit more humility to my writing.

    My late grandfather built an advertising agency, he is the ‘M’ in MVNP in Honolulu and always taught me how humility was the key to success… and to let people do what they do best, after all you hired the best and the best need their space to work and grow. No ones knows everything. If you did, it would be quite a difficult world to live in.

  • Katy

    As another MBA child of the 80s, it is amazing how much longevity Drucker, Peters, and others’ teachings have had. They are still rock stars in my world today but I wonder -Who do you think are their contemporaries today that are leading the common sense business discussions toward the future? Are the new leaders building on the rock stars’ base or paving new roads? You are obviously building upon the base with time honored principles and new technology. I’m going to have to ask my recent business school daughter if she has ever heard of Drucker!

  • pascalclaeys

    Wonderful post, and very much showing the relevance of the new marketing era where you need to create friendships and ambassadors with your business relations. Keep the posts coming, great reads,

  • Thanks, Paul.

  • As I read your writings Jack, I often think we are very similar in a lot of ways, and now I know it. : ) Beautiful comment, friend!

  • The key is not asking EVERY question, but asking the precise questions that lead to discovery and insight. Prof Drucker was amazing at that. He once distilled the management consulting process down to five essential questions. An inspiring man!

  • Very true. And sometimes leaders do have to be decisive. There is no avoiding that. But I do think there is truth in that you don’t have to be the expert all the time if you can find a better way to get to the truth. Thanks for sharing your wisdom today Tony!

  • Once I started to practice this, my experience was nothing short of an epiphany. In fact, I often did NOT have the best answer and here on the blog I almost never do. The comment section is like Christmas every day and is always better than the original blog post. Thanks for taking your precious time to comment Claudia! Much appreciated.

  • Wonderful to meet another Claremont alum. It was a wonderful experience for me and I miss my days on that campus!

    I agree with you that this lesson can apply to many aspects of our life. But it does take a lot of confidence to involve others instead of laying down the law. Thanks for introducing yourself and I hope to see you back here on the blog often EB!

  • I am so jealous that you had your grandfather to learn from like that. I actually have a post coming up about my own grandfather — might run it next week. Look for it and we can compare notes, T! Thanks so much for becoming a regular on {grow}!

  • You know that is a great question but I don’t have a ready answer. I think some would say Seth Godin but I disagree. He is a smart guy but he keeps writing the same book over and over again. If you look at what Drucker covered, it is breath-taking. There are many smart people in niches, but I’m not sure there will ever be another Drucker.

  • Thanks for the support Pascal.

  • Agree totally. I started reading Drucker’s material before it became wide spread. Simplicity was the key to understanding the nature of his message.

  • Yes! He is the Thoreau of business writers! : )

  • Great post.

    I’m a Drucker fan and really envious you studied under him.

  • tianakai

    Great! I will look out for it. He must have been something else!

  • Mark,
    Thanks for writing this. I have been trying to put my finger on this distinction for some time now.

    I think it depends on the goals of your blog. If you are writing in an effort to build community, I would agree. The most effective blogs at connecting folks together are, in my opinion, a collection of conversation starters with the leader providing the fodder for discussion that leads to real insight.

    But is this always the right path? For many the goal of the blog is not to create a community necessarily. Is there a place for business blogs that provide the definitive answers?

  • Bill Dellecker

    Thank you for the insightful post, Mark. Humility opens the mind to seeing things as
    they are and truly listening, rather than reacting based upon hardened
    expectations. The “right questions” emerge from that clarity and that leads to better answers!

  • He was a plumber. But a remarkable pumber : )

  • Harvey Gardner

    Mark, you are fortunate to have learned from Peter Drucker first hand. I didn’t have that opportunity, but he has influenced me immensely. From his book “The Effective Executive,” I’ve remembered this one important lesson above all the others: It is better to be effective than to be efficient. One can be totally efficient and not be effective at all.

  • An honor, to be sure.

  • I do agree that it must start with strategy. and of course, there are many blogs that establish a voice of authority by providing the answers. Absolutely. But is a blog without the opportunity to comment really a blog? Or is it an FAQ or web page?

    Creating provocative posts works for me, but it is not for everybody. I respect everyone’s right to find their own path.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking comment Russ!

  • I really like that Bill. “Hardened expectations” are the bane of wisdom.

  • Yes, have a blog post queued up on that exact topic. I guess that is another Drucker impact on me! : )

  • Great stuff, Mark. I don’t think any of my B-school profs ever challenged us in that way – we solved the cases, pointed out the managerial errors, offered our own (far more brilliant) solutions. This is a great lesson for consultants, too – the smart ones ask questions and let the clients solve their own problems. The dumb ones have all the answers.

  • Brilliant post. From one who did not have the opportunity to pursue higher education or have exposure to great minds such as Drucker, blogs such as yours open up a new world. Humility can sometimes be the catalyst that not only inspires new ideas but also draws in those who might otherwise feel like outsiders to contribute. Once the right questions are posed, reaching the right answers can create a sense of accomplishment.

  • Gabrielle

    Wow! What a blog post, Mark! Very powerful. This definitely resonated with me (can you tell?). It reminds me much of the saying (I don’t know where it originated), “Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” The thought of being a “leader” has always scared me, yet somehow I often find myself in that position among my peers. As a “recovering perfectionist” I’ve found choosing the humble route of fellow student takes away so much pressure, feels so much better, and create a win-win situation. Thank you for the wonderful reminder as a blogger and a business owner, as well as the importance of questions over answers!

    I’ve, of course, heard of Peter Drucker, but have honestly never read any of his books. That is about to change. Thank you again!

  • I think you’ve given me the best reason I’ve heard in a year, for picking up someone’s book. If I’ve heard of Peter Drucker, then at the time I viewed him as just another guy with some thoughts sandwiched in a hardback cover. Not any longer.

  • thesocialobsrvr

    Mark you keep wowing me. This resonates so well… I have shared this with my MBA students who are working on our term project ( a group blog)! Thank you for all you write— Jessica Rogers- Dallas TX

  • Humility, the ability to engage people in process and solutions, to walk with and not strive to be put on a pedestal…all parts of success, in my opinion.

    “To lead people, walk beside them …
    As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
    The next best, the people honor and praise.
    The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate …
    When the best leader’s work is done the people say,
    We did it ourselves!”
    ~ Lao Tzu

  • Yes, that ks the normal agenda, isn’t it? I was fortunate to have this experience!

  • Glad it resonated with you Maria. Thanks for letting me know!

  • I think you can be a student and a leader at the same time, at least I like to think I am that way. Part of humility I think — being open to listening and learning from others. Thanks for your kind words Gabrielle.

  • He is a special guy. You will love him. I would seriously start with the Entrepreneurship book I mentioned so you can teach Dino a thing or two : ) Very practical advice.

  • Thanks Dr. J! Very humbled to be shared with your students. That made my day! Look forward to doing another skype with your crew soon.

  • Where were you when I was writing this post? That is PERFECT!!! Many, many thanks for this Kaarina!

  • I totally agree with you regarding your point about asking questions rather than trying to answer them all the time. Asking questions is what inspires interaction and discussion. Indeed there are some topics that have no one true answer! 🙂

    Great site you have!

  • You’re most welcome:)

  • thesocialobsrvr

    We all need motivation and that post was just that- @drjrogers

  • patrickstrother

    Great post Mark.

    I personally observed at a fairly young age that one of the most consistent causes of ineffectiveness from executives was arrogance. I think arrogance is actually a form of insecurity, rather than overblown confidence. It takes a lot of real confidence to let people know you understand they may have considerably more knowledge in an area than you do. The key to being effective in many ways is to fully engage the talent around you.

    Extracting that knowledge via the right questions is a very valuable skill indeed.

  • Very true. But ambiguity can also be a great source of innovation! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

  • That is SO TRUE. There is probably a close relationship between arrogance and insecurity. Arrogance, after all, is simply a show, isn’t it? Very smart observation Patrick Thanks!

  • Thank so much Mark. You’ve made some profound points that I know I’m going to be thinking about long after I’ve left the page. Being a better blogger, that’s important and was why I took the time to read your post to begin with. Becoming a better leader, and even more importantly, parent – that’s the real gold within this post.

  • I noticed your comment about Seth Godin earlier. I think his post titled “The soapbox and the city” is relevant to this discussion because it may provide insight as to why Seth doesn’t allow comments on his blog.

    He states:

    “Everyone deserves their own soapbox. The web has handed everyone a microphone and said, “here, speak up.” But everyone doesn’t deserve their own audience. That’s something that’s earned. Once you’re on your soapbox, by all means take inspiration from [the others]. Learn from the diverse voices you hear. But your soapbox is yours, and the people who listen to you came to hear you, not everyone.”

    The odd thing is I don’t think Seth stands up and states that he has all the answers. His posts often leave a lot of room to fill-in-the-blanks. I’m not sure this is the same thing as Drucker was teaching though.

  • I enjoyed your article Mark and your introduction of Peter Drucker. Many thanks.

  • Thank you Mark. I’ll also add that the reason I continue to be a part of your community, is because you distill a lot of information into something digestible. You give me a place to place my focus, and then a question to allow me to be part of the conversation.

  • AaronSachs


    Your post is coming at the right time for me–I’ve fallen off of the proverbial horse with regard to trying to post regularly. I’ve also struggled with the idea that for me, what do I have to offer? I’m young and still have a lot to learn, but reading this has given me a bit of inspiration with regard to how I approach writing.

    Many thanks!

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  • What a very nice comment, Mike. Thanks so very much for taking the time out of your busy to read my post!

  • Thanks for stopping by Michael.

  • I’m glad it at least come across that way : ) Many thanks Becky!

  • Nice to hear from you. Hope to see you at Social Slam?

  • Nice. Learning in business, and with children, is more effective when the pupil finds the answer for themselves. And humility is an important part of the Character Ethic to simply be a better person.

  • AaronSachs

    Unfortunately, not this year. However, since I’m working at Claris now, I’ll take Josh Cantrell out to lunch and pick his brain.

  • Great point on “vulnerability” for people blogging… comes with the territory and saying “i don’t have the answer but will put a thought out” opens the door to great learning.

  • What a fabulous post, Mark. I can relate to this as I come from an academic background grounded in questioning and thinking. I was taught that THE answer is only one answer; a construction that has been formulated on the basis of beliefs, knowledge, evidence and so on. I learned that epistemology was only one approach, and not the right approach.

    The ability to question and re-question my own assumptions, knowledge and understanding and that of my clients has been fundamental in my development. It’s something I try to convey and encourage others to embrace every time I teach.

  • Amen! I love that you mentioned vulnerability. If more people came to turns that you must put yourself out there in order to get somewhere as an entrepreneur, they would have a much better outlook on temporary defeat AND success. Good stuff Mark.

  • I’m a fan of Drucker as well. I lived in Claremont for some time, graduated from Claremont H.S. and wen to community college in Azusa. My mom actually worked at the Drucker school for some time so I had the privilege of meeting him and his wife a couple of times. Very interesting man that led a fascinating life.

  • Thanks for the great comment Hugh!

  • Completely agree. It’s worked for me any way : )

  • This is just so smart Jon. Asking, asking, asking is the source of wisdom and insight, not telling. Nobody can ever learn when they are talking.

  • It’s really the only way, the only real source of differentiation. Seems like we talked about that some time ago, didn’t we? : )

  • Not only an interesting and wise man, but a very good man. He was world-renowned but always treated you as though you were the most important person in the room. A great mentor. Thanks so much for adding your story Matt!

  • We did indeed talk about this. Our convos stick my man.

  • It’s part of the very essence that underlies the philosophy we have at SideraWorks. Our belief is that our clients have the answers, our skill needs to be in facilitation methods that helps them to see the paths and their associated implications while uncovering those answers. No matter how smart you think you are, you’ll never have as full a context as the people who *live* that business. Our job is to bring a camera bag full of different lenses to let them see things from new perspectives, help them connect the dots, and to fill in the gaps.

    A great post Mark.

  • Likewise.

  • See I told you we would be great friends. : ) Look forward to seeing you at Social Slam!

  • People who comment on blogs as a way to advertise their business.

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  • helenbrowngroup

    Very wise, Mark, and so true. Thanks for the insightful post and for getting another great conversation going.

  • I work in the digital agency field and this is exactly the type of discussions that tend to get heated in my circles. My “kind” tend to want to give their clients all the answers to their marketing problems and then wonder why they can’t seem to connect with those clients. My stand is more along the line of: our clients don’t necessarily need answers…they just need guidance to the right order of answers. Only then are you a true partner with your client. Their goals are priority. Of course you say it so much eloquent! 😉

  • Thank you very much for many good ideas packed nicely in one article! I like very much your point (and your mentor’s): good leader is certainly intelligent and humble. I’d add: good leader is a good listener (R.Sharma-my mentor-would agree). Humble leader asks good questions-absolutely,and then evaluates status quo, shows strategic directions and delegates tasks. Doing so he is able to see the whole picture leaving details in care of trusted associates. By asking questions a good leader shows his respect and interest in other people opinions, also summarizes their collective wisdom. So, he multiplies the chances for success. Now, who can say that being humble is not a smart business strategy?

  • Mark,

    I like this approach to blogging.


  • Craig Lindberg

    Mark, thank you for sharing the wisdom as I struggle to learn more about how to stay current and relevant in our ever expanding and accelerating marketplace. As Dorie Clark wrote last week in her blog There Are No Experts in Marketing Anymore, overcoming the fear of appearing vulnerable is hard, hard, hard in our competitive world but asking questions, hopefully good ones is truly the best practice at discovering the real truths that point the way to real solutions, not the window dressing some seek. As entrepreneurs this situation is compounded by the necessity to always be right that was driven into our souls in order to succed for the client and to survive professionally. That makes humility an even more challenging goal yet still most worthy.
    Good read Mark and I’ve ordered Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Thanks again.

  • keep fighting the good fight Jen! : )

  • let’s hope that more follow your lead Olga. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  • As an entrepreneur I think there is a a great value in being right because often there is so little room for error. It’s OK to make mistakes — just not big ones that will put you under! Great to hear from you Craig!

  • You’re welcome. Great to hear from you Helen!

  • Agree. Seth is kind of a special case. There are not too many people who can pull off what he does! : )

  • Maggie Lehrian

    This is a fantastic article. As a young person in the business world, I can completely relate to everything that you are saying here. I often question my natural humility; however, posts such as this one remind me that if I’m patient with it, it will lead to success in the long run. Thank you, very insightful.

  • I am so happy this helped you. You made my day!

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  • Your posts are fantastic: simple, smart, clear, bright, mind-blowing…

    I particularly enjoyed the part where Peter Drucker calls “arrogants” to all those executives…

    This is one of the first times I am writing a comment on a blog, but I thought I had to do it after understanding (reading your post) that a blog is a good one if it has good comments…

    I am not saying that my comment is a good one, I am just agreeing with your ideas!

    Congratulations, Mark!

  • Many thanks for jumping in with your comment! Commenting is a good way for people to get to know you and you never know where that might lead. Hope you’ll come back and thanks for the kind thoughts!

  • Mr. Schaefer,
    Thank-you for your excellent article. So true humility even kindness is often misinterpreted as a sign of weakness. Listening is an art, thank-you for encouragement.

  • pascalclaeys

    just saw now your response, thanks Mark

  • I would love to know those five essential questions. I also love the quote by John Ciardi about how the really learning happens when we stay “within” the question.

  • Im a BIG fan of Dr Peter F Drucker. I’m so glad to know that i now know a person who has studied under him. I felt bad when i heard he died in 2005 because i wished to meet him. I read a lot of his works and study them deeply because they are a source of inspiration to me as a budding thinker and author. As a mark of respect i included the beginning quote of every chapter in my book from his famous quotations. Recently i came across your blog and became a fan. Now knowing that you have been his student just makes it a double treat. Look forward to reading more of your writings. They become more special for me since they have been inspired by the Master himself.

  • Thanks for your comment and welcome to the blog!

  • Bookmarked Mark! Looks like I missed this one… Plan to read, and comment next week! Sorry ~Rae

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  • gregbis

    So fully agree with everything that you write in this post. Thanks for sharing Mark and hope this year will be amazing for you and your family

  • Same to you Greg.

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  • Matthew Straker-Taylor

    Wow, this is great! Daily, I feel huge pressure to have all the answers and understand all developing trends. Thanks for sharing.

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  • It’s sad that a lot of business leaders tend to think they know it all (which in some cases they do). But what distinguishes extraordinary leaders from the ordinary is precisely what you emphasized on:

    “Your job as a business leader is not to provide the right answers. It is to provide the right questions.”

    It’s to teach others to discover what’s needed – whether that’s a huge project, managing their well-being for work, etc…

    Thanks for sharing this great article. 😀

  • Ben Feldman

    Great blog. So true.
    When I have been promoted to managment I acted like know it all because I wanted to show I’m knowledgeable and reassure my bosses. How wrong was I..from the second I’ve decided to ask, share and work closely with my superiors..all my projects became so much better. Quicker to execute and far better roi.
    And the best part..Ive started to learn so much and quickly got noticed within my department.

    I just wish that I could read a post like that coupke of years ago..

  • Thanks for the great comment Ben!

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