Leadership Lessons From Marshall Goldsmith

Several months ago I spent a weekend with Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, #1 Leadership Thinker & Executive Coach (Thinkers50), filming a documentary about his life. I was invited along with several other executive coaches to be an advisor on the film. That included participation in a workshop in which Marshall shared “Best of Leadership” lessons with an interesting mix of ~100 people from around the world—business leaders, entrepreneurs, leadership experts, MG100.

Recently I have been thinking about one particular topic that Marshall discussed related to change, and how it applies to my work with leaders. Marshall’s Wheel of Change is a framework for improving things for ourselves & our organizations by making intentional choices about what we need to create, preserve, eliminate or accept in our lives. These choices reflect either making a change or keeping the status quo, taking into account our desires (what we want) and feasibility (constraints).

In my executive coaching practice, I often see leaders who spend considerable amount of time ruminating about things they have no control over. For instance, my client Susan (name changed to protect privacy) was complaining repeatedly to me about her CEO’s decision to hire senior executives from his previous company instead of promoting from within. She was dwelling on the perceived unfairness and ill-advised nature of her CEO’s hiring practices. It was consuming her time and energy, becoming a key distraction. This was neither good for Susan nor for her company.

Helping Clients Make Intentional Choices

When I coach leaders, I help them pay attention to what they pay attention to, which includes becoming aware of distractions. That awareness is a prerequisite to their ability to manage their thoughts, regulate their emotions and choose how to respond. Paying attention on purpose is a skill set that is particularly important in the complex world we live in today. With so many external distractions, it is critical to manage the internal distractions to become clear and focused. 

Internal distractions are often caused by negative emotions and rumination. In order to get to a place where clients can intentionally evaluate and choose productive responses, I create the space for them to slow down, look inward and pay attention to what’s going on inside. For instance, they may reflect on a triggering event, share their thoughts, label their feelings, discuss their assumptions, and identify “stories” that may be distorting their reality. Then they take a few deep slow breaths to neutralize the impact of negative thoughts and feelings. As they quiet their cluttered minds, that opens the space for them to process a variety of response options — change or keep the status quo, taking into account both what they want to do and what they can actually do given external constraints. In other words, they are ready now to apply The Wheel of Change in their lives.

Going back to my earlier example of Susan — instead of ruminating, what would be a more productive behavior for her? She can try to influence the CEO (the decision maker) to change his mind. If that doesn’t work, she can either accept his decision, or she can decide to leave the company. By creating the space for Susan to reflect on her own thinking, she eventually arrived at the conclusion that the topic was not worth dwelling on or fighting for. She chose to accept, i.e., make peace with her CEO’s hiring practices.

Some events are beyond our control. Yet, we still have the freedom to choose what we pay attention to and how we respond. Sounds simple? Yes and no. This requires attention, intention and the discipline to follow through. Keeping focused attention and holding our emotions in check take skill and self-control. It is a mindfulness muscle we can strengthen with continuous practice, to help us live intentional lives that matter.

Thinking about your own life, what do YOU need to create, preserve, eliminate or accept in your own life?

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