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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Beware Sophomoric Self-Obsession

Art Kleiner, author of The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management, introduces a leadership lesson from Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning, 3rd Edition, by Chip R. Bell and Marshall Goldsmith.

Leaders can have sophomore slumps, too. As you know, sophomore means “wise fool,” and the term is usually associated with the presence of overconfidence and subsequent missteps. But the wise fools in leadership positions are much like Marshall Goldsmith’s depiction of himself in the anecdote below, which is taken from the new edition of Managers as Mentors.

The story shows how difficult it can be for a leader to transcend his or her own deep-seated psychological issues. Like most seasoned professionals, I know that difficulty firsthand. I lead a team of 12 full-time staff members and about as many part-time contractors. When I first took the job, I sought an image of impeccability. It took every ounce of discipline that I had, and to maintain that standard, I sometimes regarded everything else in my life as a distraction.

But I gradually realized I couldn’t maintain that image. I slipped as a leader, and I had to come to terms with that. I am no longer the kind of wise fool who believes that trying to impress my staff, and my superiors, is essential to my job. I have had to learn that while caring even more about what happens to the people I work with, I must give up my concerns about what they think of me. I am grateful to this excerpt because, without belaboring the obvious, Marshall Goldsmith shows that he has been there, and he shows how to come out on the other end of sophomoric self-obsession.

Art Kleiner

An excerpt from chapter 7 of Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning, 3rd Edition

As a Ph.D. student at UCLA in the early 1970s, I had a self-image of being “hip” and “cool.” I believed I was intensely involved in deep human understanding, self-actualization, and the uncovering of profound wisdom. Early in my Ph.D. program, I was one of thirteen students in a class led by a wise teacher, Bob Tannenbaum. Bob had come up with the term “sensitivity training,” had published the most widely distributed article to appear in the Harvard Business Review, and was a full professor. He was an important person in our department at UCLA.

In Bob’s class, we were encouraged to discuss anything we wanted to discuss. I began by talking about people in Los Angeles. For three full weeks I gave monologues about how “screwed up” people in Los Angeles were. “They wear those $78 sequined blue jeans and drive gold Rolls Royces; they are plastic and materialistic; all they care about is impressing others; and they really do not understand what is deep and important in life.” (It was easy for me to be an expert on the people of Los Angeles. I had, after all, grown up in a small town in Kentucky.)

One day, after listening to me babble for three weeks, Bob looked at me quizzically and asked, “Marshall, who are you talking to?”

“I am speaking to the group,” I answered.

“Who in the group are you talking to?”

“Well, I am talking to everybody,” I replied, not quite knowing where he was headed with this line of questioning.

“I don’t know if you realize this,” Bob said, “but each time you have spoken, you have looked at only one person. You have addressed your comments toward only one person. And you seem interested in the opinion of only one person. Who is that person?”

“That is interesting. Let me think about it,” I replied. Then (after careful consideration) I said, “You?”

He said, “That’s right, me. There are twelve other people in this room. Why don’t you seem interested in any of them?”

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The Reviewer

  1. Art Kleiner is editor-in-chief of strategy+business and author of The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management (2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2008) and Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success (Currency/Doubleday, 2003). 

This Book

  1. Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning (3rd ed., Berrett-Koehler, 2013), by Chip R. Bell and Marshall Goldsmith

    Chip R. Bell is a leading consultant and speaker on customer loyalty and service innovation. He is the author of six business books, including Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service (with Ron Zemke; 3rd ed., Amacom, 2013) and Customers as Partners: Building Relationships That Last (Berrett-Koehler, 1994). 

    Marshall Goldsmith is a highly regarded executive coach. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back if You Lose It (Hyperion, 2010) and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful (Hyperion, 2007). In 2011, he was ranked as the top leadership thinker in the world on the biennial Thinkers50 list.
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