Who Has Had the Greatest Influence on Your Life?

In Inside Drucker’s Brain I include a most remarkable story about two of the people who had their greatest influence on Peter Drucker’s life and his career choices. As we are still in the first days of a New Year—which to me means deep reflection—this is a particularly timely tale.

In addition to being a gifted and prolific writer of 38 books, Peter Drucker was also a first class educator who taught for many decades. Along the way he turned down a Harvard teaching offer (and Stanford as well), explaining to me that he did not believe in Harvard’s case approach (“I have no use for cases personally,” he told me). So Drucker was happy to teach at Bennington College (1942-1949), and NYU (from 1950-1971), before founding one of the nation’s first executive MBA programs for working professionals at the Claremont Graduate School of Business in California. That school was later re-named—the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management.  

I always wondered how Drucker got into teaching, and he told me—like so many things in his life, it happened by accident. But he had sworn that he would have never got into teaching at all if it wasn’t for the two greatest teachers of his life, two teachers that he had at exactly the same time. I figured it must have been some of the great college professors he had on his way to get his PhD—but I was far off the mark.  I was stunned to learn that the two greatest teachers of his life—the two teachers responsible for Drucker’s decision to become a professor—were two teachers that Drucker had in the fourth grade! Their names were Miss Elsa and Miss Sophy—and they were sisters. 

Miss Elsa, Peter’s homeroom teacher and the principal of the school, told Peter that she would meet with him each week to give feedback and check his progress on a variety of subjects. If a student did something totally out of line, like cheat repeatedly, Miss Elsa would give that guilty child a “tongue-lashing that flayed us alive,” said Peter. But that kind of dressing down was never done in front of others, it was always done in private.

Peter thought he was terrible at math but Miss Elsa set him straight, explaining to him that he was not bad at math at all. It just was that he didn’t check his work so he made careless errors. That helped him to turn his math grades around.

Miss Elsa would focus on the strengths of each of her students, and then set both short-term and long-term goals to develop those strengths. Then, and only then, would she address her student’s weaknesses. She then provided the kind of feedback that would allow students to improve their own performance and “direct themselves.” This would later become a key Drucker tenet—he contended that employees should be given the feedback to direct themselves, for “all development is self development.”
Miss Elsa knew every child’s name and every child’s characteristics, and above all, his or her strengths, and within the first week of school! “We did not love her, but we worshipped her,” Drucker asserted.
Miss Sophy, Miss Elsa’s sister, was almost the polar opposite of Miss Elsa. She could not remember a single student’s name, yet there was always one in her lap. Children brought Miss Sophy their problems and triumphs, and she was always there for a hug, praise or congratulation.  She taught arts and crafts out of a magical studio that exploded with color, a room that had everything a child could hope for—including paints and easels, crayons, brushes, sewing machines, materials, hand tools, and more. Miss Sophy would let children try out most anything, “always willing to help but never offering advice or criticism.” 

Miss Sophy taught her students “non-verbally and silently.” When a child was drawing or wood-working, she would watch for a few moments before taking her very small hand (she was a tiny woman) and guide the child’s hand until he or she got it. Or if a child could not draw, she would take the crayon or brush and paint “a purely geometric figure that bore all the elements of a cat.” Suddenly the student would see the cat amid the shapes and start laughing. This would bring a smile to Miss Sophy’s face, which was the “only praise she ever gave, but one that was pure bliss to the beholder.” She never, ever criticized a child, no matter what.   

Drucker called Miss Elsa “the very perfection of the Socratic method,” and Miss Sophie “a Zen master.”

In the opening days of 2009, it is good time to reflect on how you got to where you are now. Who is your Miss Elsa and Miss Sophy?  


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