Two Leadership Titans Disagree about the #1 Key to Success


July 8, 2016

MG - Geoff Smart 2012

By Geoff Smart and Marshall Goldsmith

What’s the #1 key to success?

Geoff: Marshall!  Let’s start by saying what we think isn’t the #1 key to success.  This should raise some eyebrows.  There are so may people with an opinion on this subject—commencement address-givers, authors, coaches, etc.

Marshall: The #1 key to success is not passion, trust, honesty, engagement, customer delight…

G: Yep, or financial tricks, being competitive, humility, or hard work.  Those are very short-term-oriented, or very common.

M:  To me, the #1 key to success is “creating lasting positive change in yourself and others.”  That is what is most rare, most difficult, and most valuable about leading people.

G:  I figured you might say that.  You are the positive behavior change guy.  I’m going to go with “hiring talented teams”—the who, not the how, of leadership.

M:  Of course you would say that.  You are the who guy.

G:  Who are you, who who, who who?

M:  Stop singing.  OK, I’ll make the case for creating lasting positive change in yourself and others.  It’s simple.  I’ve coached over 300 CEOs.  So I’ve seen what successful ones do, and what unsuccessful ones do.  And I’ve seen unsuccessful ones change into successful ones.  And in each of these cases of success, at the root I see a commitment that is made.  The commitment to make a change in behavior that will have the greatest positive affect on their performance and on their career.  It can be anything.  But by definition, committing to make the most useful change you can make, and then following through on that commitment, does more to keep people successful, or make people successful, than wishful thinking, or believing in a principle that they don’t act on.

G:  I hear you.  All we have is ourselves.  And behavior change is where the rubber meets the road.  Therefore, if we make the most positive change we can make, we have unlocked the #1 key to success.  That’s what I understand you are saying.

M:  Exactly.

G: And I love your 20 behavior derailers.  And I love how you charge your clients $20 if they fail at one of these in front of you.  Winning too much, adding too much value, passing judgment, making destructive comments, starting with no/but/however, telling the world how smart we are, speaking when angry, negativity, withholding information, failing to give proper recognition, claiming credit we don’t deserve, making excuses, clinging to the past, playing favorites, refusing to express regret, not listening, failing to express gratitude, punishing the messenger, passing the buck, excessive need to be “me.”

M:  Yes, I’m glad you read my What Got You Here Won’t Get You There book.

G:  That’s where we disagree I think.  I don’t view leadership as what one single person does.  I view a leader as an “assembler” of a talented team of people.  Like an allocator of human capital, whose job it is to identify a group’s goal and then put together the very best people to achieve it.  Therefore, what one person decides is less impactful than hiring a talented team of people.

M:  Yes yes, the talent of a team is important.  And I know your 4 steps to improving your hiring success rate from 50% to 90%:  scorecard, source, select, and sell.

G:  So you skimmed the summary of my Who book.  Nice.

M:  But a team that is not committed to their own positive behavior change, or affecting maximum positive behavior change in others, is not going to succeed.  So I’ll conclude by reiterating that the most fundamental “gene” if you will, in success, is the commitment to positive behavior change in yourself and others.

G:  And I’ll respectfully see your steadfast commitment to your own teachings and books, and raise you my own dogma.  Who matters.  And one more thing.  Don’t start a sentence with “But.”  You owe me $20.

Dr. Geoff Smart is Chairman & Founder of ghSMART, a leadership consulting firm that exists to help leaders amplify their positive impact on the world.  Click for his downloadable free tools, and events.