What Does Leadership Mean to You?

By Marshall Goldsmith

In this week’s blog interview, Erica Dhawan turns the tables and interviews me. Erica is the author of Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence, founder and CEO of Cotential, and Thinkers50 featured emerging management thinker. This week she asks me what leadership means to me. Below is the excerpt from our interview.

If you want to learn more about Getting Big Things Done from Erica, take her free Connection Intelligence Quiz. And check out her new online course on Udemy, Get Big Things Done: Become a Standout Collaborator!

Erica: Marshall, you’ve been a luminary in the leadership world for years. Can you tell us what leadership means to you?

Marshall: I like to use operational definitions when defining what leadership means to me. That way I don’t get into semantics arguments about right and wrong. My mentor Dr. Paul Hersey taught me that the operational definition of leadership is working with and through others to achieve objectives. And the key word is “others”.

My friend Alan Mulally, who you and I both know, is an amazing leader. The former CEO of Ford and probably the best leader in this century in the United States, Alan said, “For the great individual achiever, it may be about “me”, for the great leader, it’s all about “them”. And that’s really the focus of leadership. It’s not about “me”; leadership is about “them”. It’s about others.

Erica: It reminds me of a metaphor. I think of a conductor in an orchestra and the conductor is guiding the group. The conductor is in the spotlight, but it’s about the orchestra. In many ways all of us as leaders, whether it’s sports or business or music or the arts, find that it’s all about how are we cultivating and holding space for others to do their best work.

Marshall: That’s right – That’s one of the reasons I love your book, Get Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence. Because in the past, the leader was much more telling people what to do and how to do it. In the future, the leader is going to do exactly what you’re talking about with connectional intelligence. Leaders will be facilitators who are helping people learn from everyone around them.

I’m a great believer in situational leadership, which says there is no one best school of leadership and your leadership style depends on the situation. So, leaders need to match their leadership style with the readiness level of their people. This makes a ton of sense.

Let’s say I’m your manager. You want to learn and need to learn well, therefore I should use kind of a coaching or advising style, but there’s a problem. I don’t know what you’re talking about. How can I teach you what I don’t know myself? What I learned from our wonderful friend Alan is the importance of, “if you don’t know the answers, it’s okay.” Teach people to learn from everyone around them and don’t fake it. Don’t pretend to have knowledge you don’t have. In that way, I think what you’re doing is totally connected with leadership in the future!

Erica: Thank you Marshall for these great insights! For more of my interview with Marshall, check out my podcast “Masters of Leadership with Erica Dhawan”.


To get you started on getting big things done in 2019, take Erica’s free Connection Intelligence Quiz. Next check out Erica’s new online course on Udemy, Get Big Things Done: Become a Standout Collaborator. Use code BIG2019.


Work is Love Made Visible, my newest book (with lead editor Frances Hesselbein and Sarah McArthur), was just published on October 23rd. I hope that you like it!

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