What Drives Our Greatest Leaders


July 17, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

After reading countless books on leadership, writing or co-editing 22 of them, and reviewing profiles for desired leadership behavior in more than 100 corporations, I think there is one critical question that repeatedly gets left out when assessing the potential of our future leaders: How much do you love leading people?

I have had the privilege of working with many wonderful leaders. Upon reflection, the best of the best had one quality in common. They loved leading people!

Peter Drucker often noted that Frances Hesselbein (the former chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts and now chairman of the Leader to Leader Institute) was the greatest leader he had ever met. I have to agree with Peter’s assessment. I originally worked with Frances as a volunteer consultant to the Girl Scouts. Over the past 25 years we have worked together on myriad projects. She is now one of my best friends.

When Frances discusses her work as a leader, her eyes sparkle and her face glows. No matter what personal or professional challenges she is facing, she is always up, positive, and inspirational. Frances defines leadership as “circular,” with the leader reaching across the organization to colleagues, not down to subordinates. Her motivation has never come from the outside, meaning from money or status. Instead, it has always come from the inside, from her love of service and what she does.

Personal Example Conveys a Lot 

I consider Alan Mulally (former CEO of Boeing Commercial Aircraft (BA) and now CEO of Ford (F)) to be a fantastic leader of people. I have known Alan for several years and have seen him face challenges that would make most people want to simply throw in the towel.

I have never seen him get down on himself, his people, or his company. Alan has an enthusiasm that radiates to the people around him. He has an almost childlike joy in what he does. He once told me: “Every day I remind myself that leadership is not about me. It is about the great people who are working with me.” Alan’s love of what he does enables him to work incredible hours, face daunting adversity, and serve with a smile on his face. His personal example says more about leadership than his words can ever convey.

Retired General Eric Shinseki is the former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. He has continually communicated an incredible sense of pride in the young men and women who are the backbone of the Army. He has shown no interest in the trappings of power that come with being a four-star general. In fact, he sees the status and perks that come with being a general as major obstacles to overcome. His voice fills with emotion when he discusses the sacrifices of the brave soldiers who are risking their lives for our country. In short, General Shinseki is a soldier’s soldier.

Leaders Think of Others

As much as I respect Frances and Alan, General Shinseki has had to overcome even more adversity than they have. He has recovered from very serious injury only to push himself to go back out and lead our troops. He has had the courage to say and do what he believed was right for his soldiers, even if his views were not always politically popular. His love of service and leading people has produced an integrity that goes far beyond what can be delivered in a motivational speech.

Great leaders are different from great individual achievers; not better or worse, just different. For great individual achievers, achievement is about themselves. For great leaders, achievement is about others.

You can have a wonderful career and be a fine human being without leading people. For example, you can be a great teacher who loves teaching, a great salesperson who loves selling, or a great actor who loves acting.

A Telling Question

Many of the qualities that we list for great leaders are applicable for professionals in other positions. I’m talking about integrity, vision, commitment to quality, service to customers, respect for people, ability to spark innovation, and ability to achieve results. These characteristics don’t just apply to leaders.

To assess your leadership potential, ask yourself: “On a scale of one to 10, how much do I love leading people?” If you have never been in a leadership role, ask yourself, “How much do I think that I will love leading people?” If your score is low, you may want to rethink that prospect of becoming a leader.

Although high levels of leadership may bring status, power, or money, these benefits come at a cost. Almost all great leaders work extremely hard, take their jobs very personally, are subject to ongoing (and often unfair) criticism, and pay a price for their success.

Finding Reward on the Inside

If you love leading people, like Frances Hesselbein, Alan Mulally, or Eric Shinseki, leadership will be a joy and service will be a blessing.

If you do not love leading people, leadership will be an ongoing pain.

Don’t become a leader because you are looking for reward from the outside. Become a leader only if you will find your reward on the inside.

When you stand up to lead, the people that you are serving will not just be listening to your words, they will be looking into your eyes. Ultimately, you will not be able to fool them or fool yourself.

You can only inspire the people you are leading if you are inspired to lead.