Leadership: It’s All About Them


February 5, 2008


by Marshall Goldsmith

As an executive educator and coach, I have had the privilege of working with many wonderful leaders. Although I have liked all of my clients, Barry (not his real name, by the way) is definitely one of my favorites. Compared with all of the executives that I had coached, he showed the most improvement – even though he was a fantastic leader to start with! I think that I have learned far more from him than he ever learned from me.

Barry was president of a division with more than 50,000 employees in one of the world’s foremost corporations. His CEO recognized Barry’s talents and asked me to help Barry expand his role, provide more leadership, and build synergy across the organization.

You’re Only As Good As Your Team

Barry eagerly accepted this challenge and involved his team in the project. Together, they established the most rigorous project management process I have ever seen. Each person took responsibility for creating positive synergy with cross-organizational colleagues. They regularly reported on their efforts in reaching out to their partners across the company. They kept learning from all of their colleagues – and sharing what they learned with each other. They thanked people for ideas and suggestions and followed up to ensure effective implementation.

Of all of the clients that I have ever coached, I spent the least amount of time with Barry. There seemed to be an inverse relationship between his team spending time with me and his team getting better! As a coach, this was very humbling. At the end of our project, I discussed my observations with Barry. I noted, “I think that I spent less time with you and your team than any team I have ever coached, yet you and your team produced the most dramatic, positive results. What should I learn from my experience?”

Barry thought about my question. “As a coach,” he said, “you should realize that success with your clients isn’t all about you. It’s about the people who choose to work with you.” He modestly chuckled, then continued: “In a way, I am the same. The success of my organization isn’t about me. It’s all about the great people who are working with me.”

Cutting Leadership Down to Size

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom about leadership. If you read the literature, you’ll see that much of it exaggerates – if not glamorizes – the leader’s contribution. The implication is that everything grows out of the leader. She’s responsible for improving you. He’s the one who guides you to the promised land. Take the leader out of the equation, and people will behave like lost children.

This is far from the truth. On oft-quoted proverb says: “The best leader, the people do not notice. When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’ ”

After my experience with Barry, I no longer hold myself up as “coach as expert.” I’m just a “coach as facilitator.” Most of what my clients learn about themselves comes not from me but from their friends, colleagues, and family members. I just try to provide help when needed and assist them in not wandering too far off the course that they have chosen.

For example, let’s say you want to do a better job of listening. It’s possible that a coach can explain to you how to be a better listener. The advice will probably be reasonably logical, supportable, and hard to dispute. But it will be generic. It’s much better to ask the most important people in your life, “Please give me some ideas on how I can do a better job of listening to you.” They can give you specific, concrete suggestions, not vague ideas that you can read in a book. They may not be experts on listening, but they actually know more about how you should listen to them than anyone in the world.

I cannot make my successful clients change. I don’t try. Too many people think that a coach – especially an accomplished one – will solve their problems. That’s like thinking that you’ll get in shape by hiring the world’s best trainer and not by working out yourself.

Truly great leaders, like Barry, recognize how silly it is to believe that a coach or a leader is the key to an organization’s success. The best leaders understand that long-term results are created by all of the great people doing the work – not just the one person who has the privilege of being at the top.