This Advice Is For You, Smart-Ass

This Advice Is For You, Smart-Ass


Like many young PhD students, I was deeply impressed with my own intelligence, wisdom and profound insights into the human condition. I consistently amazed myself with my ability to judge others and see what they were doing wrong.

Dr Fred Case was both my dissertation adviser and boss. My dissertation was connected with a consulting project that involved the city government of Los Angeles. At the time, Case was not only a professor, but also head of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission.

At this point in my career, he was clearly the most important person in my professional life. He had done amazing work to help the city become a better place, and was helping me.

The wisdom of barbers

Generally upbeat, one day Case seemed annoyed. “Marshall, what’s the problem with you?” he growled. “I’m getting feedback from City Hall that you’re being negative, angry and judgemental. What’s going on?”

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“You can’t believe how inefficient the city government is,” I ranted. I then gave several examples of how taxpayers’ money was not being used in the way I thought it should. I was convinced that the city could be a much better place if the leaders would just listen to me.

“What a stunning breakthrough,” Case sarcastically remarked. “You, Marshall Goldsmith, have discovered that our city government is inefficient. I hate to tell you this, but my hairdresser figured this out years ago. What else is bothering you?”

Undeterred by this temporary setback, I angrily pointed out several minor examples of behaviour that could be classified as favouritism toward rich political benefactors.

Case was now laughing. “Stunning breakthrough number two,” he said. “Your profound investigative skills have led to the discovery that politicians may give more attention to their major campaign contributors than to people who support their opponents. I’m sorry to report that my hairdresser has also known this for years. I’m afraid we can’t give you a PhD for this level of insight.”

Career-changing advice

As he looked at me, his face showed the wisdom that can only come from years of experience, and delivered the advice I will never forget: “Marshall, you’re becoming a pain in the butt. You’re not helping your clients. You’re not helping me, and you are not helping yourself.

“I’m going to give you two options: Continue to be angry, negative and judgemental. If you choose this option, you will be fired, you’ll probably never graduate, and you’ll have wasted the last four years of your life. Or, start having some fun. Keep trying to make a constructive difference, but do it in a way that is positive for you and the people around you.”

I finally laughed and replied, “I think it’s time for me to start having some fun!”

Most of my life is spent working with leaders in huge organisations. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that things are not always as efficient as they could be.

Like the hairdresser, most employees have made this discovery. No genius is needed to learn that people are sometimes more interested in their own advancement than the welfare of the company.

What makes real leaders

I learnt a great lesson from Case. Real leaders aren’t people who can point out what is wrong. Anyone can do that. Real leaders are people who can make things better.

Case’s coaching didn’t just get me a PhD, it made me a better consultant with a better life. Think about your own behaviour at work. Are you communicating a sense of joy and enthusiasm to those around you, or being an angry, judgemental critic?

Do you have co-workers who are acting like I did? Are you getting annoyed with them, or trying to help them like Case helped me? Give it a shot? Perhaps they’ll write a story about you someday.

Ego check

You may be smarter than everyone else in the room but will proving it win you friends and influence people?

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Marshall Goldsmith
Marshall Goldsmith is an executive educator, coach and million-selling author of numerous books, including the New York times bestsellers, MOJO and What Got You Here Won't Get You There.