In a previous post, Marshall Goldsmith discussed his 34 years of coaching more than 100 top CEOs around the world. Recently named the winner of the 2011 Thinkers50 Leadership Award as the World’s Most Influential Leadership Thinker, Goldsmith spoke with me about issues such as the future of leadership, the meaning of the Occupy movement and the leadership legacy of Steve Jobs.
AB: What do you think about the Occupy movement that has severely criticized some corporate leadership as being too greedy?
MG: What Robert Reich wrote in “Supercapitalism” makes a lot of sense to me. He basically said that it’s somewhat unrealistic to expect business people to regulate themselves. They’re predominantly in business to make money and to do what is best for the shareholders and they’re not inherently going to sacrifice their shareholders for the “common good.” To expect that, he says, is a little unrealistic. I think the people I work with are not immoral, and they have to take care of their companies and their shareholders. I think broader societal issues have to be taken care of by society and not just sort of expect they’ll take care of themselves.
AB: Are there lessons to be learned by leaders from the Occupy movements?
MG: I think there is a lesson both ways. One lesson is for the people in business and that is that you need to be sensitive to all your important stakeholders, and that a broader society is an important stakeholder. You’re not going to be perfect, but you at least need to convey a good faith effort that you take in the broader needs of society. If you don’t, eventually it can come back to haunt you.
The second lesson is for those who are in the Occupy movement, which is that life is tough. Basically, the United States is broke, Europe and Japan are broke, and we do not have enough money to pay for everything. It’s not easy being a kid a today. Part of that is influenced by government, part of it by business – but a large part of it is globalization. It is very, very difficult. I think it’s very important that young people better find something they love to do. Get an education that’s marketable. Don’t pile up $80,000 worth of student loan debts, because if you do, with a degree in English, you’re going to pay the price for the rest of your life.
There are millions of incredibly smart kids in India who speak fluent English and work hard. I didn’t have to compete with those kids when I was young. Young people today in this country compete with them. And if there’s a contest between hungry and not hungry, hungry wins. It’s a new world. It’s challenging.
AB: With the kind of challenges you’re talking about, do you think we’re doing enough to develop our young leaders?
MG: No. In fact, we’re not doing much as all. If you look at most colleges, there is almost nothing being taught about leadership. We spend probably more time having people memorize obscure statistics that they’re never going to use in their entire lives rather than teaching anything about leadership or even about influencing people. So I would say our education has not typically focused on leadership at all. I see a lot of people graduating who have had very little training and very little experience in leadership. So, I think there’s a big need for that that isn’t being met.
AB: Are you concerned about the numbers of senior leaders who have lost their jobs and therefore not within company ranks to help some of these younger managers learn the ropes?
MG: I think that it’s very important for young people coming up to find mentors, and rather than wait for the company to provide them. They should go and seek out mentors, people they respect who are willing to help them. I think they’re going to find many retired leaders who are more than happy to help mentor young people. If asked, they’ll be more than happy to share information, more than happy to be mentors. If you are respectful and do it in a positive way, I think it’s not that impossible to find mentors.
AB: The death of Steve Jobs who founded Apple has prompted a lot of press about his impact on technology, business dynamics and innovation. What do you think his legacy will be in terms of leadership?
MG: I’m not an expert on him because I never met him. But he and I had one thing in common: He was a Buddhist and so am I. He clearly loved what he did. He communicated his passion for what he was doing to the people around him. He communicated his passion for the products he was producing and developing. That passion was contagious. So if I had to say one thing he did right, that would be one of the things I would put at the top of the list. Here’s a guy who loved what he did, was passionate, wasn’t a fake and communicated his passion to others. Was he a perfect leader? Of course not. Nobody is. On the other hand, he did that right.
AB: You are obviously someone at the top of your game. Are there any parting words of wisdom you’d like to leave?
MG: Yes. Leadership is a contact sport. [Find Goldsmith’s writing on that subject here]. What I’ve learned is that the key variable in leadership development is the leader. The biggest learning is driven by yourself. So, I really feel as a coach I’m much more a facilitator than an expert. I really help people learn from everyone around them. And my advice to young people is: Learn how to learn. Learn from everyone around you. Start asking for input. Learn to follow up. This isn’t something you have to go to a lot of fancy courses to learn. Learn day after day from everyone around you. To me, that’s the best place to learn.