Marshall Goldsmith on the Strengths, Weaknesses of Today's Leaders (Part I)

Jan 4, 2012
10 Min Read

Marshall Goldsmith has been named the winner of the 2011 Thinkers50 Leadership Award as the World’s Most Influential Leadership Thinker. Sponsored by the Harvard Business Review, the award is a biannual rating of management thinkers using 10 criteria: loyalty of follower; business sense; international outlook; rigor of research; impact on ideas; and the “guru” factor.

In addition to his work coaching more than 120 CEOs of major corporations worldwide and their management teams over the last 34 years, Goldsmith teaches executive education at Darmouth’s Tuck School and has written numerous books. His latest, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There and MOJO have been on several bestseller lists.

I recently caught up with Goldsmith as he was getting ready to begin a two-week journey to Saudi Arabia and India to work with executives:


AB: How has your leadership coaching changed – if at all – in the last 34 years?

MG: My deepest learning in 34 years has been recognizing that it is not all about me. It’s about the clients. In fact, the person who I spent the least amount of time with improved the most. And the person I spent the most time with improved the least. So I learned a great lesson that it wasn’t about me being smart, it was about great people who work hard.

AB: Are there different pressures on executives today than when you first began coaching?

MG: Oh, yes. Much different. In the old days before the Internet and everyone had cell phones and all that, executives were much more likely to get a pass, especially from the business press, for inappropriate behavior. But today they live in a much bigger fishbowl. Everything they say is quoted. They have to be incredibly careful about everything they do and say because they are under much, much more of a microscope than they were before. They have to be incredibly sensitive in emails because that can all get subpoenaed and go to court and become public record. How many cases do we know where companies have lost billions because of stupid emails?

AB: Is such a fishbowl existence good or bad?

MG: I’m not into the “good or bad” judgment business. I’m in the “helping people get better” business and deal with what’s there. You could argue it’s good and bad. The reality is: It is what it is. The reality is that today it is very, very challenging to be an executive. Your behavior is under incredible scrutiny, and that’s part of life. And if you don’t want to pay the price, don’t take the job.

AB: Is that one of the things you tell your executives?

MG: Definitely. Every meeting is show time. People look at what you say, how you look, your tone of voice. More so today than ever before.

AB: What’s their reaction when you tell them that their every move will be watched and reviewed?

MG: I use the example of the Broadway play. I ask them: “Did they ever hear the kid (actor) complain because their foot hurts or their aunt died last week?’ No. That’s because it’s show time. I tell them the kid isn’t making a hundredth of what they’re making, and if the kid can go out there night after night and be a professional and get everything right, so can you. That’s just part of your job. I think it’s a healthy attitude to have. You’re not being a phony, you’re being professional.

Look, an executive sitting in a meeting listening to a PowerPoint slide already knows what the person is going to say, but everyone in the room is looking at the executive face, and this executive has to look like he or she cares. That’s not being a phony, that’s being professional. Because if they look demoralized, then the whole room will be demoralized.

AB: You’ve worked very closely with more than 100 CEO over the years in your effort to improve their leadership. Can you talk about some common weaknesses you often see in these top leaders?

MG: I think one of the greatest challenges is that every time you get promoted it gets harder and harder to hear the truth. For one reason, we all tend to accept feedback from others that is consistent with how we view ourselves. And the more successful we become, the more positive feedback we get. It’s hard not to let it go to our heads. Every time we get promoted, our jokes get funnier, our comments become profound and people tell us we look like we’ve lost weight.

The key is that it’s very hard to face reality when you’re in an environment of unreality. For another reason, not only does it get harder to hear negative feedback, it becomes harder for others to give us negative feedback. The more powerful we become, the more frightening we are and the less likely it is that people will tell us the truth. Basically one of the things I get paid for is telling people the truth.

AB: Obviously, these leaders have great strengths as well, or they wouldn’t be in their jobs. Can you talk about strengths you see as a common thread in these executives?

MG: There are a few classic dimensions that come out. They tend to be incredibly smart, incredibly dedicated and they work hard. Smart, hard-working people tend to prevail a little bit more than stupid, lazy people. They typically love what they do and they’re driven to achieve their mission.  It’s not about money in the way people might think for them. Most people who are mega-successful have plenty of money. Their lifestyles aren’t going to change one iota because they make another dollar. Most people love what they do, and they do it because they love doing it. Work is not a sacrifice for them. They don’t mind putting in long hours.

AB: What about female leaders? Do they have different problems or needs than their male counterparts?

MG: According to a study by the Center for Creative Leadership, the average woman does a little bit better than men in terms of receiving more positive overall feedback in the 360 degree feedback process.  On the other hand, I find this in my own work – and I think the statistics validate this – the average woman is harder on herself than the average man is hard on himself.  When coaching a woman, I am more likely to ask her than I would a man to please not be too hard on herself. Women tend to be more self-critical, they tend to be less self-promotional and they tend to have more guilt. I teach several women’s leadership programs, and the one that is typically the most popular is the one about letting go of guilt.

In the next installment of this interview, Goldsmith will discuss his views on the Occupy movement, the future of young leaders and the leadership legacy of Steve Jobs.

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