Guest AuthorMarshall Goldsmith

C-Suite Master Class: The Fear of Looking Stupid

By | Dr Marshall Goldsmith | #1 Leadership Thinker, Exec Coach, NYT Bestselling Author. Dartmouth Tuck Professor Mgmt Practice

In our conversation this week, best-selling author of Now Build a Great Business, Success Built to Last, and Admired, #1 CEO Coach, and member of our 100 Coaches pay-it-forward initiative, Mark Thompson and I talk about the greatest fear of highly successful people and just about everyone else we’ve ever met.

Over the decades that I’ve been an executive coach, author, and speaker, I’ve worked with many brilliant people from different cultures and backgrounds. Many of them are simply extraordinary and yet they are no different that anyone else in that we all have a very deep internal fear of looking stupid. More about this in our interview below.

Mark: You have had the opportunity to work with some of the most brilliant people from many different cultures and backgrounds. What would you say is the deepest concept or idea that we should know about this work and your experience?

Marshall: There’s one thing that is very hard for all of us and in many ways the more highly educated we are, the harder it is. We have a very deep internal fear of looking stupid.

Mark: Even when we’re brilliant? Marshall: It doesn’t matter. We are so afraid of looking stupid that we go through life over and over proving how smart we are. The great Peter Drucker (father of modern management) taught me a wonderful lesson. He said, “Our mission in life is to make a positive difference. Not to prove how smart we are.”

Mark: We’re kind of obsessed with our image in a sense, aren’t we? Marshall: There’s another reason. We have taken test after test after test in life. Many people have taken thousands of tests with one goal. Do you know what the goal is? “Prove I’m smart.” Over and over that’s it – prove we’re smart. It’s very hard to stop. As our great friend Alan Mulally (former CEO of Boeing and Ford) said, “For that great individual achiever, it’s about me. And for the great leader, it’s about them.” It’s very hard to stop behaving like it’s all about me. It’s very hard to stop proving how smart we are and really focusing on helping other people be smart, on helping other people win. The theory behind this is really easy – the practice of this is phenomenally difficult.

Mark: I think we’re all thinking about our significance in every step of the calendar, and quarter, and every step of the ladder that we take. We’re always thinking about how we can position ourselves to look the best we possibly can. Marshall: For our readers and audience, please send us comments answering this question, is there a time in the past when you had a need to prove how smart you were and found that it wasn’t worth it?

Republished with permission and originally published at

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