Teaching Leaders What to Stop: Peter Drucker said, “We spend a lot of
time teaching leaders what to do. We do not spend enough time teaching
leaders what to stop.” Explore what to stop in this series of Marshall’s
Thinkers50 video blogs.
A classic problem of smart, successful people is Adding Too Much Value.
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Teaching Leaders What to Stop
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.”
- Winning too much: The need to win at all costs and in all situations.
- Adding too much value: The overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.
- Passing judgment: The need to rate others and impose our standards on them.
- Making destructive comments: The needless sarcasm and cutting remarks that we think make us witty.
- Starting with “No,” “But,” or “However”: The overuse of these negative qualifiers which secretly say to everyone “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
- Telling the world how smart we are: The need to show people we’re smarter than they think we are.
- Speaking when angry: Using emotional volatility as a management tool.
- Negativity, or “Let me explain why that won’t work”: The need to share our negative thoughts even when we weren’t asked.
- Withholding information: The refusal to share information in order to maintain an advantage over others.
- Failing to give proper recognition: The inability to give praise and reward.
- Claiming credit that that we don’t deserve: The most annoying way to overestimate our contributions to any success.
- Making excuses: The need to reposition our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.
- 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.
- Playing favorites: Failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly.
- Refusing to express regret: The inability to take responsibility for our actions, admit we’re wrong, or recognize how our actions affect others.
- Not listening: The most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.
- Failing to express gratitude: The most basic form of bad manners.
- Punishing the messenger: The misguided need to attack the innocent who are usually only trying to help us.
- Passing the buck: The need to blame everyone but ourselves.
- 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.
#2 Adding Too Much Value
This bad habit can be defined as the overwhelming desire to add our two
cents to every discussion. A slight variation on Winning Too Much,
Adding Too Much Value is common among leaders who are used to running
the show. It is extremely difficult for successful people to listen to
other people tell them something that they already know without
communicating somehow that (a) they already knew it and (b) they know a
What is the problem with adding too much value?
It would seem like it would be better for all concerned if our ideas
were always improved upon. It’s not. Imagine an energetic, enthusiastic
employee comes into your office with an idea. She excitedly shares the
idea with you. You think it’s a great idea. Instead of saying, “Great
idea,” you say, “That’s a nice idea. Why don’t you add this to it?” What
does this do? It deflates her enthusiasm; it dampers her commitment.
While the quality of the idea may go up 5 percent, her commitment to
execute it may go down 50 percent. That’s because it’s no longer her
idea, it’s now your idea.
Effectiveness of execution is a function of a) What is the quality of
the idea? times b) What is my commitment to make it work? Oftentimes, we
get so wrapped up in trying to improve the quality of an idea a little
that we damage their commitment to execute it a lot. As a leader, it’s
important to recognize that the higher you go in the organization, the
more you need to make other people winners and not make it about winning
I asked my coaching client J.P. Garnier, former CEO of the large
pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmith Kline, “What did you learn from me
when I was your executive coach that helped you the most as a leader?”
He said, “You taught me one lesson that helped me to become a better
leader and live a happier life. You taught me that before I speak I
should stop, breathe, and ask myself, ‘Is it worth it?’ He said that
when he got into the habit of taking a breath before he talked, he
realized that at least half of what he was going to say wasn’t worth
saying. Even though he believed he could add value, he realized he had
more to gain by not saying anything.
The flipside to this concept is that people often take leaders’
suggestions as orders. I asked J.P, “What did you learn about leadership
as the CEO?” He said, “I learned a very hard lesson. My suggestions
become orders. If they’re smart, they’re orders. If they’re stupid,
they’re orders. If I want them to be orders, they are orders. And, if I
don’t want them to be orders, they are orders anyway.”
For many years, I taught this to the students at the new admirals’
school of the US Navy. The first thing I taught them was that as soon as
they get their stars, their suggestions become orders. Admirals don’t
make suggestions. If an admiral makes a suggestion, what is the
response? “Sir, yes sir.” Their suggestions become orders.
What does this mean for leaders? It means closely monitoring how you
hand out encouragement and suggestions. If you find yourself saying,
“Great idea,” and following it with “But,” or “However,” try cutting
your response off at “idea.” Even better, before you speak, take a
breath and ask yourself if what you’re about to say is worth it. You may
realize that you have more to gain by not winning (adding value)!
Dr. Marshall Goldsmith was selected as one of the 10 Most
Influential Management Thinkers in the World by Thinkers50 in both 2011
and 2013. He was also selected as the World’s Most Influential
Leadership Thinker in 2011. Marshall was the highest rated executive
coach on the Thinkers50 List in both 2011 and 2013. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There was listed as a top ten business bestseller for 2013 by INC Magazine / 800 CEO Read (for the seventh consecutive year). Marshall’s exciting new research on engagement will be published in his upcoming book Triggers (Crown, 2015).