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ATD Blog

Helping Successful Leaders Get Even Better

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Talent development leaders tend to be the ones who “know,” and through their work help their learners to do the same. But that mindset of knowing comes with a cost. They may not practice what they preach or teach. They may not acknowledge that knowing does not equal doing. And they may not admit when they don’t know or that they need help. If holding themselves to these higher standards is detrimental, it’s even more problematic when these practices influence the way these individuals lead their teams, especially under difficult conditions.

So how do successful leaders get even better and lead effectively in times of crisis? They heed the advice of Marshall Goldsmith, world renowned speaker, teacher, author, and coach who recently shared his wisdom with members of the ATD Forum. Goldsmith discussed the need for leaders to demonstrate authenticity and pragmatic optimism, use “six-question coaching” to lead others, understand the importance of empathy, and implement a practice of daily self-questioning to increase effectiveness and engagement.

Authenticity and Pragmatic Optimism

In times of crisis, people don’t look to their leaders for pep rallies or motivational speeches. Rather, they want and value authenticity and pragmatic optimism from their leaders—a fine balance of being real yet optimistic. How is this accomplished?

Be mindful. “Am I being the person I want to be right now?” Keep this question in front of you and ask it as you journey through your day.

Face the hard realities that exist. As we’ve come to know all too well during this pandemic, happy choices don’t always exist. Effective leaders acknowledge what’s real and work with it.

Let go of the past. Focus on what you can do now without fixating on the past or the future. To accomplish this, you must employ a clear strategy, block everything else, and “hit the shot that’s in front of you” without developing an ego attachment to the results.

Make peace with tough decisions. Especially in times of crisis, leaders are faced with making difficult decisions. You can make peace with yourself and your tough decisions by asking two questions: Did I do what I thought was right? and Did I do my best?. When you can answer yes to those questions, you’ll find it’s easier to live with yourself.

Let go of what you’re not going to change. In his book Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts—Becoming the Person You Want to Be, Goldsmith and co-author Mark Reiter suggest that before you deal with any topic, ask yourself, Am I willing, at this time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic? As you consider this question, it’s important to acknowledge that you can’t change or solve everything, and get clear about what you are willing to do.

The late Peter Drucker believed that our mission in life is to make a positive difference, not to prove how smart or how right we are. Goldsmith espouses a similar philosophy—his mission is to help successful people have better lives. That enables those successful people to help others and perhaps change or solve challenges beyond Goldsmith’s reach. He knows where he can make a positive difference and where he can’t.

“Am I willing, at this time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?” If you answer yes, then get to work. If you answer no, then let it go.

Six Question Coaching

Goldsmith described the need for leaders to regularly meet with direct reports and establish the practice of asking six questions for alignment. While you may ask more, fewer, or different questions, the intention is to engage in ongoing dialogue with each individual member of the team to ensure alignment exists. Goldsmith suggests asking:


1. Where are we going?

  • Here’s where I see you and your part of the business going.
  • Where do you think you and your part of the business should be going?

2. Where are you going?

  • Here’s where I see you going.
  • Where do you think you should be going?

3. Doing well?

  • Here’s what I, as your manager, think you’re doing well.
  • What do you think you’re doing well? What are you most proud of?

4. Suggestions for the future

  • As your manager, here are some ideas I have for you to help things get better.
  • If you were the coach for you, what ideas or suggestions might you have for yourself?

5. How can I best help you?

6. Here’s what I’m trying to do better. Please help me. What ideas or suggestions do you have for me?

  • “My name is x. Here’s what I want to improve. Please give me ideas.”
  • Goldsmith refers to this type of forward-facing activity as feedforward.

The dialogue that results from asking and answering these questions can only work in the space of mutual responsibility, where the leader and direct report agree to speak up to prevent problems from arising.

  • The leader commits to initiating the six-question conversation every few months (or as needed).
  • The direct report commits to speak up any time there’s a feeling of doubt, ambiguity, or confusion.

Understand the Importance of Empathy

Actor Telly Leung, a good friend of Goldsmith, defines empathy as “being what you need to be now, to give people the help they need now.” Goldsmith described four types of empathy; each has a positive and a negative side. Effective leaders understand the importance of exhibiting empathy and steer clear of the negative side of each.

Empathy of Understanding:I understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. I know what you need, and I can help you.” On the surface this appears to be positive. Its overuse can lead to negative effects when the empathizer understands more about the person’s motivation than the individual does. Advertisers excel in this—they study our behavior and target us with advertisements that drive our behavior without us understanding what we’re doing or why. And the data show that we’re unconscious about why we make 85 percent of our purchases. So, understanding the other is good . . . to a point.


Empathy of Feeling:I can feel your pain.” While this can give you a sense of understanding the other, it becomes problematic if you lose perspective and can’t separate yourself from the other. If you’ve ever wondered how you can feel positive when everyone around you feels negative, then you’ve experienced the negative side of the empathy of feeling. Be careful about thinking that the other’s feelings need to dictate yours.

Empathy of Caring:I care for you.” Though caring for or about another is an admirable quality, too much caring can cause someone to feel more cautious and become less effective. While a surgeon may have great confidence operating on a pediatric patient, that same surgeon would likely be far more cautious and less effective performing surgery on their own child. It’s important to know when (and how much) to care and when to let it go.

Empathy of Acting:I understand where you’re coming from, I feel your pain, I care, and I’m going to do something about it.” Taking action to help someone is not inherently a bad thing to do. Becoming a people fixer creates dependency, the negative side of the empathy of acting. Act but in measured doses.

Practice Daily Self-Questioning

Change is hard. According to Goldsmith, most people don’t do it because it takes humility (to admit they’re wrong), courage (to look in the mirror; it’s not easy to do), and discipline (to take the daily steps required to implement behavior change). Yet humility, courage, and discipline are the keys to effecting positive change. How do effective leaders make this happen?

In addition to demonstrating authenticity and pragmatic optimism, using six-question coaching to lead others, and understanding the importance of empathy, effective leaders ask themselves a series of active questions daily to increase their effectiveness and engagement as well as practice humility, courage, and discipline. In his article “Questions That Make A Difference: The Daily Question Process,” Goldsmith describes his daily practice of challenging himself by answering 32 questions that represent behavior he knows is important but often easy to neglect. He clarifies that the number 32 is not magical; it simply works for him. Your number of questions may be quite different.

This practice begins with six active questions. Add related questions as you see fit.

Did I do my best to:

  • Set clear goals?
  • Make progress toward goal achievement?
  • Be happy?
  • Find meaning?
  • Build positive relationships?
  • Be fully engaged?

It’s important to note that each question begins with Did I do my best to. . . . That puts ownership for the answer on the person asking the question—that is, the person sitting in your chair—and not on someone or something external.

Goldsmith pays someone to call him every day just so he can read his questions and answer to that individual. Why would he do that when he wrote the theory about how to change behavior? Because he wrote the theory about how to change behavior, and he knows how difficult that is to do on his own. And can’t we identify with that? We support others in their learning; therefore, we assume that we know. We understand the importance of our learners applying what they learn in order to change behavior and attempt to reinforce that with them, yet we fall short of applying our own knowledge to change our own behavior. We’ve compared ourselves to the shoemaker whose children have holes in their shoes, yet we find it difficult to admit we don’t know or need help.

Goldsmith concluded his remarks with a call to action. He invited us to avail ourselves of any and all resources on his website. He encouraged us to make peace with the fact that we’re human beings and it’s hard to apply theory to practice. He also urged us to make peace with the idea that we can teach stuff to people but don’t necessarily model it well. We should be humble about that and own that we’re not perfect. When we do, we’ll get even better at being successful leaders in our field.

About the Author

Marie Wehrung is rewiring and designing her next chapter after a 30-year career at Rice University. She’s a seasoned talent and organizational development professional who designs and implements talent strategies, develops and delivers training, and serves as a thought partner whose insight, experience, and programming leads to increased engagement, retention of top talent, and productivity. She has facilitated hundreds of training sessions to thousands of individuals over the course of her career.

Wehrung also is a certified coach through the International Coaching Federation. She works with individuals and organizations who are committed to figuring out what matters to them, changing behavior, and performing at their best.

Wehrung has an AB in biological sciences from Smith College and an MS in human resources development from Texas A&M University—Central Texas. She’s especially passionate about two things: applying design thinking to her work and enhancing lives by coaching others and facilitating programs that lead to desired results.

Wehrung was a chapter author for Leading the Learning Function, served as chair of the ATD Forum’s advisory group, and served on the ATD 2022 Conference PAC. She is also serving on the ATD 2023 Conference PAC.

Wehrung lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Len. They are mostly empty nesters, with daughters earning their bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She maintains her sanity through running (when she’s not dealing with foot problems!) and yoga.

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