Interview with Marshall Goldsmith: On How Leaders Can Get Better

marshallgoldsmithMarshall is author or editor of over 35 books including two New York Times bestsellers. He is a world authority on helping successful leaders get even better whose work has been recognized by every professional organization in his field.

Vera: At its core what is leadership?

Marshall: Leadership can be defined as working with and through OTHERS to achieve objectives. The key word in this definition is OTHERS. One of my favorite CEO clients noted that, “for the great achiever it is all about me – for the great leader it is all about them”.

Vera: Can anybody/everybody be a leader?

Marshall: As long as we are working with and through others to achieve objectives, we already are leaders! The more important question is, “Can leaders get better?” My partner, Howard Morgan, completed research with over 86,000 respondents which documented how leaders who receive feedback, then follow-up with key stakeholders in a disciplined and frequent manner, almost invariably become more effective – not as perceived by themselves, but as perceived by their key stakeholders.

Vera: What do you see as the biggest threat to great leadership?

Marshall: The greatest problem of already successful leaders is ego. This is manifest in ‘winning too much’ or ‘adding too much value’ – as I discuss in my book ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’ adding too much value can deflate enthusiasm and reduce commitment. A leader should always ask whether the value they seek to add by their contribution will make the person they are trying to help more or less committed. If the answer is the latter, then they shouldn’t comment.

Vera: What should leaders do with people who have peaked in their organization?

Marshall: I never believe in stereotyping people. Anyone who does not have an ‘incurable genetic defect’ can improve. Some people may not ever be promoted again, but can still become more effective, if they choose to work at it.

Vera: Leadership is associated these days more with competence than character. How can we get back to character being the foundation of leadership?

Marshall: I believe that the press focuses on the negative examples of leadership and ignores the positives. I work with many leaders who have great character. Every organization should have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on integrity violations.

Vera: Should leaders in the workplace take a more democratic approach?

Marshall: Peter Drucker once said that, “The leader of the past knew how to tell. The leader of the future will know how to ask.” Most of the leaders that I meet today manage knowledge workers. What is the definition of a knowledge worker? They know more about what they are doing than their boss. If we manage knowledge workers, we cannot just tell them what to do and how to do it. We have to ask, listen and learn.

Vera: When employees show leadership, what sorts of things would they typically do?

Marshall: Employees who demonstrate leadership learn how to influence without line authority. They are focused on ‘making a difference’ – not ‘proving how smart they are’. They recognize that all decisions are made by the people who have the power to make these decisions – and learn how to maximize their impact on these decision makers.

Vera: What are your thoughts on empowerment and can someone be empowered by another?

Marshall: Empowerment, unlike integrity, is not always a good idea. Empowerment only works with employees who are motivated, knowledgeable, skilled and confident. With the right people empowerment is a wonderful leadership style – with the wrong people it is a disaster.

Vera: Some think inspiration is overrated. Is an inspiring leader able to achieve more?

Marshall: Inspirational leaders increase the odds of engaged employees – employees who will go the ‘extra mile’ to help the organization. Engaged employees lead to increased productivity.

Vera: Should the leader’s ‘MOJO’ (positive spirit) seek to influence the company culture?

Marshall: MOJO is ‘that positive spirit – toward what you are doing – now – that starts from the inside – and radiates to the outside’. Leaders who are high in MOJO consistently communicate that they are happy to be doing what they are doing – and that they find their work to be meaningful. What kind of message do leaders who have no MOJO send? I am miserable and this work is meaningless. The positive communication of happiness and meaning can build a culture. The negative message can destroy a culture.

Vera: How can an organization effectively grow its people?

Marshall: I am very excited about peer coaching. Several studies that have been conducted show how it can help create better leaders at a very low cost to the company. Peer coaching reduces isolation amongst leaders, builds a shared knowledge base and successful practices and leads to a more cohesive organizational culture.

Vera: What sorts of ‘non-negotiables’ should a leader hold him or herself accountable for?

Marshall: Integrity. Leaders must make their values visible and recognize that they are a model for those they lead. Leaders must avoid political and self-serving behaviour and courageously stand up for what they believe in.

Vera: How can a leader breed greater trust?

Marshall: Lead by example – not by ‘preaching’.

Marshall’s bio

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith is an author or editor of 35 books, an executive coach and a world authority on helping successful leaders get even better – by achieving positive, lasting change in behavior: for themselves, their people and their teams. Marshall’s global professional acknowledgements include World’s number 1 leadership thinker by the Havard Review, 50 great leaders in America by Businessweek and World’s number 1 leadership speaker by the Economist (UK). The American Management Association also named Marshall as one of 50 great thinkers and leaders who have influenced the field of management over the past 80 years. His articles are available at


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