Exclusive Interview with Marshall Goldsmith


Why is courage important for leaders? What do the most successful people in the world have in common? What should the new leaders in Brunei’s cabinet do to “Make Brunei Prosperous”?

Marshall Goldsmith

All these questions and more, were answered by Marshall Goldsmith, in an exclusive interview with Inspire magazine at The Empire Hotel & Country Club late last year.

Marshall Goldsmith is the author and co-editor of 32 books, including What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, a New York Times best-seller, Wall Street Journal #1 Business Book and winner of the Harold Longman Award as Best Business Book of the Year. His latest book is called Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts–Becoming the Person You Want to Be. He is one of the few executive advisors who has been asked to work with more than 150 CEOs and their management teams. Last year, Goldsmith was named winner of the 2015 Thinkers50 Leadership Award – as the #1 World’s Most Influential Leadership Thinker and #5 business thinker in the world.

Read more to learn from Goldsmith’s advice in this rare interview!

Why is courage important for leaders?
My area of expertise is to help successful leaders achieve positive long-term change. The first factor in achieving positive long-term change is that you have to have the courage to look into the mirror and to get feedback. Before you could get any better, you have to have the courage to find out where you are now. It is a very challenging thing to do for many people. The higher up you go, the more difficult it is to do so. Every time you get promoted, more people laugh at your jokes. And you get more and more positive feedback. Which is good. The problem is, the better we feel about ourselves, the harder it is for us to get constructive feedback. As well as this, every time you get promoted, you get more power. And people are afraid to tell you the truth. So, it’s hard for you to hear the truth, it’s even harder for others to tell you the truth. Therefore, I really encourage leaders to get confidential feedback from everyone around them. And have the courage to look at the mirror and ask yourself: what do I really look like, rather than the dream that I view of myself.

Leadership is a skill that you can harness. But courage is more of a mindset. How does one become more courageous?
I think you can look at courage as a discipline. It’s not that somebody is born with a “genetic set of courage”. I don’t believe that at all. You are not born to be courageous; you are not born to be uncourageous. Like anything else, it is a discipline that can be learned. Let me give you an example. One of the great leaders that I have coached is Alan Mulally who was ranked the third greatest leader in the world in 2014 for turning the troubled company, Ford around. Ford was losing USD 17 Billion. One day, Alan came to the meeting and asked the top 16 leaders in each respective department whether the company was on plan? When all the leaders responded “Green” (that they were on plan), Alan got really mad. He responded by saying: “we are losing USD17 Billion and everyone says it is on plan? What is our plan? To lose USD 17 Billion?”

Finally, somebody stood up and said Red (not on plan and don’t know how to get there). His name was Mark Field, the current CEO of Ford. He had the courage to not only admit that they were not on plan, but also admitted that “I don’t know how to get there”.

Alan Mulally stood up and applauded. Alan applauded Mark for the courage to tell the truth. He went on to say, you’re not on plan and you don’t know how to get there. And that’s ok. I’m the CEO, and I know less than you do. That’s ok too. Let’s work together to solve the problem. Within 10 minutes, the problem was solved.

How so?
Once they had the courage to admit the truth, things got fixed. Before, they were hiding everything. They were ashamed. To me, the opposite of courage is shame. I pay a woman to call me and ask me the same 32 questions everyday to change my behavior. Someone asked me why I pay a person to call me and ask the same questions everyday. Don’t I know the theory behind changing behavior? I wrote the theory about changing behavior. I know how hard it is. I pay the person to ask me the questions I know because I am too cowardly and undisciplined to do this by myself. Almost nobody would do this. They’d be ashamed for someone to call you (to remind you of the simple but important things you need to do). They’d be too embarrassed.

Every one of my clients on my list of 27 CEOs in Ford, Pfizer, Target, Best Buy and so on have the courage to stand up and admit they could improve and ask for help. That wouldn’t have happened 30 years ago.

Photo courtesy of Marshallgoldsmithlibrary

So, courage requires great humility?
Humility to me is related to courage. You have to have the courage to admit that you are human. You can have humility and on the inside know that you need help. The courage is the ability to stand up and admit that you don’t know.

Does it have to do with the environment one comes from? An environment that shames people for putting their hand up to ask questions would invariably discourage people from admitting to what they don’t know.
Yes, that is true. But to me, once you get pass 30 it’s time to grow up and quit blaming the environment. Don’t whine about your parents after you are 30. You need to take responsibility for your behavior.

There is a fine line between courage and foolishness. It has a lot to do with the purpose and meaning behind the endeavour and the way you manage your risk. What are your comments about risk management?
Risk management depends on the business you are in. One of the people I consult is the CEO of a company called Maveron. They make investments and they are hugely successful. He realised that he will be successful if he makes money one time out of five. To me if your goal is high-risk high return, then risk is appropriate. If your goal is low risk low return, then risk is inappropriate.

You have to ask yourself what is the desired risk profile of your business. When you make an airplane, the risk tolerance is zero. If you make a mistake, people die. When you are in Silicon Valley, the risk tolerance is high. People fail 80% of the time. Nobody dies because of a failure.

Brunei has just undergone a change in its Government cabinet. His Majesty has a simple but audacious mandate for the new leaders: “Make Brunei Prosperous”. As one of the world’s foremost leadership coaches, what advice do you have for our leaders?
Keep going back and checking your consistency with the vision of His Majesty. Don’t assume. Constantly ask yourself “What is my contribution? What is my objective? How does it fit into the overall picture?” The other thing which is more difficult is that people are good at managing down but not managing across. It is important to work as a team for a collective objective and vision so that you have a coordinated effort to achieve the goal. Not just as individuals doing their own part.

You have to get into the habit of reaching out across organisation and ask your peer, “What can I do to be a better partner for our relationship?” And then you listen, you develop a plan and you follow through. If you reach out, you ask for feedback and follow up, things get better.

You have coached all over the world. From your observation, what are the predominant differences between the leadership styles in the East and the West? What can we learn from each other?
It depends on the level of people you are dealing with. The people I deal with, they are all at the top. And the higher up you go, the less differences there are. If you are dealing with a villager in Kentucky and a villager in India, the difference is vast.

If you are dealing with a billionaire in Kentucky and a billionaire in India, the difference is minimal. They typically speak fluent English, are Western educated and are business people, and are running large organisations. They have a lot more in common with each other (across different continents) than they have, even with people in their own country. The commonality of the people I work with is this: they have the courage, they have the humility, they have the discipline and they are extremely time sensitive. They don’t like to waste time.

End note:
Special thanks to Mr Soon Loo for organising this exclusive interview.

This article was published in the Jan-Mar 2016 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!