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Teaching Leaders What to Stop

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As a 10-year board member of the Peter Drucker Foundation, I had many opportunities to listen to Peter Drucker, the world's authority on management. During this time, Peter taught me some very important lessons about life and leadership.

One of the greatest lessons he taught me is this: "We spend a lot of time helping leaders learn what to do. We do not spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop. Half of the leaders I have met don't need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop."

There are a lot of good reasons for this. Probably most prominent is the fact that leaders and organizations focus on demonstrating commitment to positive action to maintain forward momentum. For instance, using the phrase, "We must begin to listen more attentively" rather than focusing on what we can stop, "Playing with our iPhones while others are talking." Likewise, the recognition and reward systems in most organizations are geared to acknowledge doing something. For instance, we get credit for doing something good. We rarely get credit for ceasing to do something bad.

How do you use "What to Stop" in coaching and leadership development?

The first step is to identify what behavior to stop. In my book What Got You Here Won't Get You There, I discuss the 20 bad habits of leaders. Everyone I have met has exhibited one or more of these behaviors, including me! Review the list. Do you identify with any of these bad habits? If you are like the majority of people, the answer is yes, and you are ready to start using "What to Stop."
1. Winning too much: The need to win at all costs and in all situations.
2. Adding too much value: The overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.
3. Passing judgment: The need to rate others and impose our standards on them.
4. Making destructive comments: The needless sarcasm and cutting remarks that we think make us witty.
5. Starting with "No," "But," or "However": The overuse of these negative qualifiers which secretly say to everyone "I'm right and you're wrong."
6. Telling the world how smart we are: The need to show people we're smarter than they think we are.
7. Speaking when angry: Using emotional volatility as a management tool.
8. Negativity, or "Let me explain why that won't work": The need to share our negative thoughts even when we weren't asked.
9. Withholding information: The refusal to share information in order to maintain an advantage over others.
10. Failing to give proper recognition: The inability to give praise and reward.
11. Claiming credit that that we don't deserve: The most annoying way to overestimate our contributions to any success.
12. Making excuses: The need to reposition our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.
13. Clinging to the past: The need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past; a subset of blaming everyone else.
14. Playing favorites: Failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly.
15. Refusing to express regret: The inability to take responsibility for our actions, admit we're wrong, or recognize how our actions affect others.
16. Not listening: The most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.
17. Failing to express gratitude: The most basic form of bad manners.
18. Punishing the messenger: The misguided need to attack the innocent who are usually only trying to help us.
19. Passing the buck: The need to blame everyone but ourselves.
20. An excessive need to be "me": Exalting our faults as virtues simply because they're who we are.

After reviewing this list, for those of you who still aren't sure what to stop, there is one habit that I've seen take precedence over all of the others. You may be part of the majority of people who partake of this bad habit. What is the number one problem of the successful executives I've coached over the years? It is Winning Too Much, and I'll write about it in my next post.

Meantime, please view my new Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog. The first short video in the series Teaching Leaders What to Stop: Winning Too Much accompanies this article. I'll post these blogs once a week for the next 50 weeks. The series will incorporate learnings from my 38 years of experience with top executives, as well as material from my previous research, articles and books, including What Got You Here Won't Get You There, MOJO, Coaching for Leadership, and Succession: Are You Ready?

The blogs will also include material from my exciting new research on engagement and my upcoming book Triggers (to be published by Crown in 2015). Each video will have an accompanying written blog.