You’re Not a Little God Who Has All the Answers: Marshall Goldsmith

You’re Not a Little God Who Has All the Answers: Marshall Goldsmith

In an exclusive interaction with Human Capital, Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, a world-renowned executive educator and coach, Thinkers50 Management Hall of Fame Inductee, and celebrated author, shares his thoughts, techniques, and tips on thriving and leading through the current crisis.


The COVID-19 crisis has brought unique and varied challenges for everyone. What is your top guidance to navigate and adapt through this period of upheaval and rapid change?




Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita


There’s a great parable called the Gita, which I think is a great guidebook for helping people deal with today’s crisis. In the Gita, Arjuna is faced with two very challenging choices: bad and worse. He shares his woes with Krishna. What is the message from Krishna?


◆ Face and accept what is: People want authenticity from leaders. They don’t want them to paint a pretty picture of what is not a pretty picture. Face what is in a pragmatic way, yet be optimistic — practice pragmatic optimism.


◆ Do not become attached to outcomes: You do not control the outcomes. You didn’t create this virus. You didn’t create this disaster. When we become attached to the outcomes, we invariably set ourselves up for failure. So it’s very important to realise this and forgive yourself.


Many people in the crisis are saying, “I should have saved more money. I should have done this or that.” You can’t change what you did. Also, forgive other people for being who they are. Getting angry at them for things that you can’t control is a complete waste of your time and energy. Focus on where you want to make a difference.


◆ Create a strategy that fits your deeper purpose and do your best: Ask yourself, “What is my plan, and how does this plan tie into my deepest purpose?” The next important step is to do your best. Once you have made peace with what is, and you have accepted the hard reality that exists, all that’s left is for you to do your best.


◆ Make peace with the results: When you get fixated in the outcomes, all of a sudden, everything is personal, and you think you’re a terrible person. Not everyone is going to succeed.


One of my good friends, David Chang, is among the most famous restaurant people in the world. Two of his top restaurants just went bankrupt. He’s a brilliant guy. He’s famous worldwide. He had great food. But sometimes, even the greatest leaders lose, and they have to make peace with that and say, “How can I start over?”


Learnings from Peter Drucker


I had the opportunity to learn from the great Peter Drucker, the founder of modern management and a great mentor of mine. I was on the Peter Drucker advisory board for ten years.


Peter Drucker taught me a wonderful lesson that’s very appropriate for this time of crisis: Our mission in life is to make a positive difference. It’s not to prove how smart we are or how right we are. We get so lost in proving how smart and how right we are that we forget that’s not what we’re here for.


There is a good guideline in my book, Triggers, which is very appropriate for today’s crisis. Before you deal with any topic, ask yourself this good question that was inspired by Peter Drucker: Am I willing, at this time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic? If the answer is yes, go for it. If the answer is no, let it go. Do not waste your time, emotions, and energy on things you’re not going to change and improve anyway.


The Golfer Parable


There is an analogy that’s going to be in my upcoming book, The Earned Life. I’m not a golfer, but my good friend and colleague Mark Reiter is. He helped me put this together.


Imagine this: You’re a golfer. You are at the country club. It is a weekend, and you have a chance to win the monthly championship. You are very excited because you are on the final hole, and you have been playing very well. The group in front of you is noisy and drinking beer. You are very annoyed by these people. You go up to the tee. You block out distractions. You hit your drive, and it’s perfect. It goes right to where you want it to go. However, it hits something and bounces over into the rough. You think, “How could that happen?” You walk to where your ball landed, and you see it hit a beer can. The beer can was left on the fairway by these inconsiderate people. Now, you’re angry. You hit a perfect shot. The stupid idiots left the can of beer. You walk to your ball. What do you do?


Breathe. Let go of the past. Forget about the beer can. The results of the previous shot are over.


You cannot fixate on the glory that may or may not ever happen in the future. You can only develop the best possible strategy, walk up to the ball, and hit the shot in front of you. That is all that you can ever do. In the words of the Gita, you do your best, your duty, but do not get attached to the results. In today’s crisis, you can’t change the past. You have to let it go.




During this period of change, people need more communication because there is more ambiguity and rapid change. I suggest that leaders have a regular dialogue with each person they work with through a simple six-question process.


1) Where are we going?


As a manager, you say, “Here’s where I see the organisation going right now in terms of vision, goals, and priorities.” Then, ask your direct report, “Where do you think we should be going?” This opens up a two-way dialogue.


2) Where are you going?


You say, “Here’s where I see you and your part of the business going now.” Then, start a dialogue by asking, “Where do you think you should be going?”


3) What is going well?


You begin by sharing, “Here’s what I think you and your part of the business are doing well.” Then, ask your direct report a seldom-asked question, “What do you think you’re doing well?”


Many times, we forget to recognise people during a crisis, and they’re often doing very good things. By asking this question, you can celebrate performance wins that you would otherwise miss.


4) What are your key suggestions and ideas for the future?


You provide feedforward by saying, “Here are some ideas I might have for you in the future moving forward,” and then asking the question, “Assuming you were the coach or advisor, what ideas would you have for yourself?”


People often give ideas you might have never thought of that may be more valuable than your own ideas.


5) How can I help?


Another good question is, “In this time of crisis, what can I do to help you?”


6) What ideas do you have for me?


Finally, you can say, “We’re going through this together. What ideas and suggestions do you have for me moving forward?”


You don’t promise to do everything; you promise to listen to people and do what you can.


During this period of change, leaders need to go through this simple six-question process — not less, but more — because things are changing very rapidly.


As an executive coach, I only get paid if my clients get better. I’ve taught this process to seven big CEOs. I got paid seven times out of seven. This is how effective this process is. There are two keys to making this work:


◆ One is establishing mutual responsibility. As a leader, you say to the person you’re managing, “I’m going to have a regular dialogue with you on these six basic topics so that we are in good alignment. If you ever feel overcommitted, lacking in alignment, or confused, I want you to take the responsibility of talking to me. Because if I do my job as your manager on a regular basis, and you do your job in following up with me, there’s no reason we should have ambiguity, confusion, or any lack of alignment.”


◆ During times of crisis, you also need to say, “I cannot promise that our strategy today is going to be our strategy five years from today. In fact, I can’t even promise our strategy today is going to be our strategy next week. However, at any point in time, I want you to have total clarity in terms of what’s most important and what the priorities are right now.”


Why could practising either pragmatism or optimism be problematic? Also, how can leaders become pragmatic optimists?


If you focus only on the news and reality, it can be very depressing. It’s tough out there. Yes, it’s real and pragmatic, but if you focus all day on the thought “Isn’t life terrible?” you’re not making a positive difference and not helping anyone.


You have to face the hard reality and then ask, “How can I make the best of it? How can I make the biggest positive difference right now?” That’s the optimist part.


But you can’t be just an optimist either. Motivational speeches or happy thoughts are not going to make everything fine. You can think positive until hell freezes over, but the virus is not going to get cured by positive thinking. If wishing this would go away was the cure, it would have been gone a long time ago.


So, the first part is pragmatism: Don’t hide from the reality that’s there. Today, people prefer authenticity. They don’t want some show or pretense. The second is asking, “How can I make the best of the reality that does exist?” That’s the idea of pragmatic optimism.


Today, leaders have to be bold, decisive, and tough while also being empathetic, compassionate, and supportive of their workforce. This balancing act is one of the most challenging that they will encounter in their career. What is your best piece of advice for leaders out there?


Peter Drucker gave a great piece of advice: Every decision is made by the person who has the power to make that decision, so make peace with that.

If I am the decision-maker, then you need to influence me. In this case, there’s one word to describe you, and it’s “salesperson”. There’s one word to describe me, and it’s “customer”. You don’t have to buy; you have to sell.


So first, when you’re trying to influence people that have more power than you do, realise that it is not their responsibility to buy — it is your responsibility to sell. If you cannot sell it or change it, then you make peace and move on.


If you are the leader, you don’t have to prove that other people are wrong or put them down. On the one hand, you can be very compassionate, and on the other hand, you can tell the truth and say, “Here’s the decision I’ve made”. Sometimes, it may be an unpopular decision. People may come back and say, “This is bad for me”. However, an effective leader can be positive and respond, “I understand that, and I’m going to do whatever I can to help you. I’ve still made the decision.”


One of the great leaders in our 100 Coaches group is Harry Kraemer. He was the CEO of a large pharmaceutical company called Baxter. He’s now a top-rated professor at the Kellogg School. Harry was asked the question, “As a leader, you’ve had to fire people, lay people off, make very difficult decisions, and do things that caused a lot of pain for people. How do you sleep at night?” He had a very simple yet profound answer: “I only ask myself two questions: One, Did I do what I thought was the right thing? Maybe I was wrong, but did I do what I at least thought was the right thing at that time? And, two, Did I do my best? If the answer is yes, I did what I thought was the right thing, and yes, I did my best, I can always sleep at night. That’s all you can ever do.”


What mindset should leaders take on as they steer their organisation through unknowns?


I have written an article about a leader being a facilitator, which is what Peter Drucker taught me. He said, “Today, we manage knowledge workers. They know more about what they’re doing than you do. And as a leader, you don’t have the answers.”


During this period of crisis, you have to ask, listen, and learn from everyone around you. As a leader, you’re much more of a facilitator who learns from others. You’re not a little god who has all the answers, and it’s very important to make peace with that. The people I coach are CEOs of multi-million-dollar companies.


If you're a CEO who knows more about marketing than the marketing person, more about finance than the finance person, and more about HR than the HR person, then you don’t have a leadership problem — you have a selection problem. You have the wrong staff.


You need people who know more than you do. You need to facilitate and learn from those people and help them work with you to develop the strategy.


People don’t need you to be a little god who tells them what to do and how to do it because you don’t know enough to be that little god. There are no such leaders — at least, I haven’t met any if there are.


Leaders today find themselves choked by the sheer volume of business and people responsibilities and may not find time for introspective thinking. However, this pandemic will define their legacy, for good or ill, no matter how far they are from retirement. How could busy leaders consciously build their legacy?


I think it’s very good for leaders to challenge themselves with questions as human beings. What’s my mission in life? What are my priorities? What is most important for me? What am I doing well? What do I need to change? What help do I need?


Every day, I practice something called the daily question process. I have a person call me every day. I go through these questions regarding my whole life every day. Someone asked me, “Why do you have someone call you on the phone every day? Don’t you know the theory about how to change behaviour?” Well, I wrote the theory about how to change behaviour. That’s why I have someone call me every day. I know how hard it is.

My name is Marshall. I have someone call me every day. They listen to me while I read the questions that I wrote and provide answers. Why? I’m too undisciplined to do this by myself, and I need help. We all need help, and that’s okay.


What would you like our readers to know about your upcoming book, The Earned Life?


The first part of my book is about creating your own life. We live in a world of choice. In India, years ago, you had no choice about where you lived. You lived where your parents did. You had no choice about your occupation. You did what your parents did. Your religion was set for you. Everything was prescribed. Today, you have thousands of choices.


In many ways, this is very positive. Yet, depression is at an all-time high. People are anxious and confused. When you don’t have a choice, you also don’t have regrets. You cannot regret making a decision when you can’t make decisions. However, when you can make decisions, you have regret, and it’s sometimes hard to face. So, the first part is addressing who you want to become and making peace with who that is.


The second part is that, as we journey through life, we constantly need to earn respect from others and ourselves. As part of our work with 40 brilliant people, we found that they’re all trying to get better. Each one of these people could say, “I am successful. I have money. I have status.” However, they’re all saying, “I need to get better and keep earning respect and value.”


It’s an ongoing evolution of life. Thus, the book is about creating the life you love and earning the life you create, not once but over and over again.



With 5+ years of experience, Ankita has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR - from hire to retire. She is currently Deputy Editor at Human Capital.


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