C-Suite Master Class: Choose Your Battles

Choose Your Battles!

By Marshall Goldsmith

World’s #1 CEO Coach and four-time CEO himself, Mark Thompson is a great friend, a member of our 100 Coaches initiative, and the best-selling author of Now Build a Great Business, Success Built to Last, and Admired. Mark has been involved with more than 70 board engagements, which have led to vast organizational transformations, and he specializes in coaching high-profile CEOs who have incredible impact and reach.

In this week’s interview, Mark and I discuss the #1 bad habit of successful people. This bad habit has stood the test of time. It was a bad habit when I got into coaching four decades ago, and it is still the number one offender of all the executives I work with. What is it? It’s Winning Too Much. Mark and I talk about this bad habit in our interview.

Mark: Marshall, you’re long considered the number one leadership coach in the world. You’ve retired from one-on-one coaching now, been inducted into the Hall of Fame by Thinkers50, and you continue to write and edit incredible books, three of them New York Times best sellers.

One of them, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, talks about what leaders are doing that is holding them back. What would you say is the number one behavioral characteristic that you have come across over the years that holds leaders back?

Marshall: What is the number one problem that all of these successful people I’ve worked with over the years have? It’s been the same for decades – it’s winning too much. What that means is that if it’s important, we want to win. If it’s meaningful, we want to win. Critical? Win! Trivial? Win! Worth it? Win! Not worth it? Win anyway!

Winners love winning. Let me give you a case study. You want to go to dinner at Restaurant X. Your husband, wife, friend, or partner wants to go to dinner at Restaurant Y. You have a heated argument. You go to Restaurant Y. The food tastes awful; the service is terrible. Option A, should you critique the food? Point out they are wrong and that if they had only listened to you this all would have been avoided? Or do you take Option B, shut up, eat the food, and try to have a nice evening? What would you do? What should you do? Almost all of my clients critique the food. What should they do? Eat the food and shut up.

Case study number two. You have a hard day at work. Your husband, wife, friend, or partner says, “I had such a hard day today.” If we’re not careful, we reply, “You had a hard day. You wouldn’t believe what I had to put up with today!” We’re so competitive we try to prove we are more miserable than the people we live with. I gave this example to my class at the Dartmouth Tuck School. A young man raised his hand and said, “I did that last week.” I asked him what happened. He said, “My wife looked at me and said, ‘You just think you had a hard day. It’s not over yet!’”

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Now that you know the #1 problem of successful people, take a moment to think about it. Is there a time when you needed to win and prove you were right? Maybe you shouldn’t even have been fighting that battle in the first place? How could you choose your battles, decide what is important to “win” at, and how generous you can be about the things that just aren’t worth it. We’d love to read your comments, stories, and ideas. Please leave them here on LinkedIn.