Personal Characteristics of Successful Leaders

by Marshall Goldsmith

We wouldn’t drive backwards to get to our destination. Why do we think delving into the past will help us make the change needed to propel us forward?  Creating change in yourself by looking to the future

There is a school of thought among psychologists that we can understand our errant behavior by delving into our past, particularly our family dynamics. This school believes “when it’s hysterical, it’s historical.”

If you’re a perfectionist, it’s because your parents never said you were good enough. If you operate above the rules, it’s because your parents doted on you and inflated your importance. If you freeze around authority figures, it’s because you had a controlling mother. And so on. I refuse to attend any school that clings to the past–because going backward is not about creating change. It’s about understanding.

One of my earliest clients spent hours telling me, “Marshall, you don’t understand. Let me explain why I have these issues. Let me explain my mother and father.” It was one long unendurable whine. Finally, I reached into my pocket for a coin and said, “Here’s a quarter. Call someone who cares.”

Don’t get me wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with understanding. Understanding the past is perfectly admissible if your issue is accepting the past. But if your issue is changing the future, understanding won’t take you there. My experience tells me that the only effective approach is looking people in the eye and saying, “If you want to change, do this.”

It takes me a long time to convince clients that they can’t change the past, or make excuses for it. All they can do is accept it and move on. But for some reason, many people enjoy living in the past, especially if going back there lets them blame someone else for anything that’s gone wrong in their lives.

That’s when clinging to the past becomes an interpersonal problem. We use the past as a weapon against others.I learned this from my daughter Kelly. She was 7 years old. We were living in a nice house in San Diego (still my home).

One day, annoyed over a professional setback, I came home and took out my annoyance on Kelly. I trotted out the speech that begins, “When I was your age…”I started yammering about growing up in Kentucky and how we didn’t have money and how hard I had to work to become the first person in my family to graduate from college. Contrasting this, of course, with all the wonderful things Kelly had.

She listened to my diatribe, instinctively letting me vent. When I was finished, she said: “Daddy, it’s not my fault you make money.”That stopped me in my tracks. She was right. How could I expect her to know what it’s like to be poor–when I was damn sure she never would be?

I chose to work hard and make money. She didn’t. In effect, I was bragging about how clever I was to have triumphed over adversity–and masking that boasting by dumping my frustrations on her. She called me on it.

Stop blaming others for the choices you made.

Effective Leadership Skills DVD video with Marshall Goldsmith  Business Week book excerpt from What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith, number one business book January 2007 in both Wall Street Journal and USA TODAY.

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