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Marshall Goldsmith on how to choose the business battles worth fighting for

World Business Forum speaker and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith tells The CEO Magazine that not every one of life’s battles needs to be fought.

Marshall Goldsmith WOBI

At the executive level, life can sometimes seem like a series of battles. There are, periodically, wins and there are losses, but a constant is the compulsion to pick up a sword and shield and fight in the first place.

Engaging in these daily skirmishes may seem like one’s duty as a leader, but one of the world’s leading executive coaches and business educators Marshall Goldsmith says otherwise. “One of the greatest challenges for successful people is winning too much,” he tells The CEO Magazine.

With clientele that includes some of the most successful names in business, Goldsmith advocates positive behavioral change as a driver of change. His books, including Triggers and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, have topped the Amazon Leadership & Success charts, and his talks on leadership, self-management and talent management at the World Business Forum have inspired global executives past, present and future.

Goldsmith says it’s through engagements such as WOBI that he has the greatest opportunity to succeed in his mission.

“My work with the World Business Forum gives me the opportunity to work with leaders from around the world who want to learn. I love it, and I’ve met so many wonderful people,” he says.

The end goal for Goldsmith is imparting the knowledge and insights he’s accumulated throughout his career to those keen to improve their approach to business and, in doing so, improve their lives.

 “As I’ve grown older, my mission has become simpler and simpler,” he says. “I want to help the people that I meet have a better life. If that happens, I declare victory!” 

Managing modern distractions

But over time, the mission’s parameters have changed. “I think achieving positive, lasting change in behavior is more difficult than ever,” he warns. “If we’re not careful, we live in a world of near-constant distraction. It can be very hard to keep in focus and remember to focus on becoming the leader we want to be.”

Those distractions have taken on a much more seductive and ubiquitous form than years past, particularly due to the instantly gratifying nature of social media. “There are many ways that we can become derailed,” Goldsmith says.

“One of the biggest is ‘social comparison’. We are so worried about impressing others that we can forget about our own values and what’s most important to us.”

“Another great client said, ‘For the great achiever, it may be ‘all about me’. For the great leader, it is ‘all about them’.” 

Instead, Goldsmith says it’s important to work with others, rather than against them. “My wonderful mentor, Paul Hersey, taught me, ‘Leadership is working with and through others to achieve objectives’,” he says. The key word is others. 

“Another great client said, ‘For the great achiever, it may be ‘all about me’. For the great leader, it is ‘all about them’.” 

With a series of objectives to focus on, Goldsmith says it’s much easier to deal with the multitude of triggers for negative behavior presented to us on a daily basis. “Negative triggers are ubiquitous, not only in the business world, but also at home,” he says. 

“They can be avoided only if we understand the negative impact they have on us and, to the degree that we can, eliminate them from our environment.” 

The other method of tackling such triggers comes from a deeper place of self-improvement, he adds. “In many cases, these triggers cannot be avoided. In these cases, we need to learn to anticipate the triggers that we may face and then adjust our response to reduce their negative impact,” he explains. 

In doing so, one begins the journey towards an existence graced by positivity, and Goldsmith says it is now more important than ever to make this a central part of the modern leadership ecosystem.

“It’s hard to hire and retain great people today,” he says. “Executives need to lead by example. If they don’t communicate a love for what they’re doing, and if employees can find another job at similar pay, why should great people work there?” 

Facing challenges together

It’s challenging scenarios such as these that Goldsmith and his audiences confront together at WOBI events.

This year, he’ll share his insights in London, Sydney, New York and Mexico City alongside speakers including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, social psychologists Modupe Akinola and Amy Cuddy, former Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts and filmmaker James Cameron.

“I’m honored to be on the agenda with the other WOBI presenters,” Goldsmith says. “Why? They’re all among the very few best people in the world at what they do. The ones I have met are also fascinating to be with – and love what they’re doing.”

The latter is a trait Goldsmith says it’s important to take on, and that’s easier to do once you stop fighting every battle in your path. 

“In life, win the big, important battles. Let go of the rest.” 

“My clients are all mega-successful,” he says. “They’re winners. It is very hard for winners not to constantly win. I once asked one of my clients, then-CEO of GlaxoSmithKline Jean-Pierre Garnier, what advice from me was the most helpful. He said ‘Before speaking, breathe. Ask myself, ‘is it worth it?’”

Garnier noted that, about half the time he did so, he concluded that he may be right, but the battle wasn’t worth it.

“In life, win the big, important battles,” Goldsmith says. “Let go of the rest.” 

Goldsmith will take the stage at the World Business Forum in London on 7 June 2023, Sydney on 11 and 12 October and NYC on 15 and 16 November. Registration is now open.

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