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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Beware Sophomoric Self-Obsession

Now that I had dug myself into a hole, I decided to dig even deeper. I said, “You know, Dr. Tannenbaum, I think you can understand the true significance of what I am saying. I think you can truly understand how ‘screwed up’ it is to try to run around and impress people all the time. I believe you have a deep understanding of what is really important in life.”

Bob looked at me and said, “Marshall, is there any chance that for the last three weeks all you have been trying to do is impress me?”

I was amazed at Bob’s obvious lack of insight! “Not at all!” I declared. “I don’t think you have understood one thing I have said! I have been explaining to you how ‘screwed up’ it is to try to impress other people. I think you have totally missed my point, and frankly, I am a little disappointed in your lack of understanding!”
He looked at me, scratched his beard, and concluded, “No, I think I understand.”
I looked around and saw twelve people scratching their faces and thinking, “Yes. We understand.”

Suddenly, I had a deep dislike for Dr. Tannenbaum. I devoted a lot of energy to figuring out his psychological problems and understanding why he was confused. But after six months, it finally dawned on me that the person with the issue wasn’t him. It wasn’t even the people in Los Angeles. The person with the real issue was me. I finally looked in the mirror and said, “You know, old Dr. Tannenbaum was exactly right.”

Two of the greatest lessons I began to understand from this experience were (1) that it is much easier to see our problems in others than it is to see them in ourselves, and (2) even though we may be able to deny our problems to ourselves, they may be very obvious to the people who are observing us.

There is almost always a discrepancy between the self we think we are and the self the rest of the world sees in us. The lesson I learned (and strive in my professional work to help others understand) is that often the rest of the world has a more accurate perspective than we do. If we can stop, listen, and think about what others see in us, we have a great opportunity. We can compare the self that we want to be with the self we are presenting to the rest of the world. We can then begin to make the real changes needed to align our stated values with our actual values.

I have told this story at least three hundred times, and I have thought about it more frequently than I have told it. Often when I become self-righteous, preachy, holier-than-thou, or angry about some perceived injustice, I eventually realize that the issue is not with the other person or people. The issue is usually me.

Today I work mostly with executives in large organizations. I help them develop a profile of desired leadership behavior. Then I provide them with confidential feedback, which allows them to compare their behavior (as perceived by others) with their profile of desired behavior. I try to help them deal with this feedback in a positive way, to learn from it, and (eventually) to become a good role model for the desired leadership behavior in their organization. Although I am supposed to be a “coach,” very little of my coaching involves “sharing my wisdom.” Most of it involves helping my clients learn from the people around them. In this way, the lesson I learned from Bob Tannenbaum has not only helped me in my personal life; it has helped shape the course of my professional life.

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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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