Marshall Goldsmith’s 3 Virtues of Leadership

Thought leader, Marshall Goldsmith, espouses three virtues which he looks for in a leader, to assess their receptiveness to coaching before he accepts them as a client: courage, humility, and discipline. While these virtues are absolutely essential to a successful coaching program, I suggest they’re also invaluable to success as a leader overall.

Courage, humility, and discipline are admirable traits of a leader worth following. They make leadership by example a practical matter. They’re each highly demonstrable. Everyone can plainly see if and when we are, or aren’t, following through. This makes them measurable while keeping us accountable.

To succeed as a leader, and in life, we need to have more courage than we have fear. We need humility to be able to hear what we need to hear, so we can improve, or make better decisions, and we need discipline to ensure we follow-through on our sincere intentions.


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines courage in the following ways. To show:
• “greatness of spirit in facing danger or difficulty”
• “strength in overcoming fear and carrying on against difficulties”
• “bravery and boldness in accepting risk or sacrifice for a noble or generous purpose”

In practical terms, leaders need to have the courage to take the right, sometimes unpopular, course of action. As a leader expect to come under scrutiny and be criticised. It comes with the territory. Some of it will be legitimate, some reactive, and some political. You’ll need courage to respond gracefully and constructively to the first and to not be swayed by the other two.

From Courage to Encouragement

One of the biggest benefits of building up courage is that you can use it encourage others. My favourite definition of encourage is ‘to transfer courage from one heart to another’. To encourage means to inspire courage, spirit, or hope in others. Such is the stuff of leaders.

This is a big one because it supplants the ego. Humility leaves no room for preciousness, nor pridefulness for the self. As we move through life, each of us is on a continuous journey of growth, change, and hopefully, improvement. Humility allows us to be open to embrace life changes gracefully.

As Marshall Goldsmith famously said, “what got you here, won’t get you there.” Humility allows us to pay respect to what got us here and then let it go gracefully. Each new level of development for which we reach has the potential to supersede the previous. What worked in the past will become your downfall if you don’t ‘upgrade’ when it’s time.

Humility is invaluable to a leader because it allows you to be a great listener, who really hears what people have to say, and considers it without feeling threatened if it doesn’t match your perspective.

This can expand your worldview, as you take in additional information even when it doesn’t fit with your life experience. This can be highly enriching because you now have access to many more options than merely using your singular life experience as a learning platform.

Humility also makes it easier to practice compassion for the human condition, as we realise that people are usually doing the best they can with what they have available to them. This doesn’t mean that you surrender and accept that they can’t grow and improve either.

We all know that nobody is perfect, yet there seems to be an unspoken norm that people in positions of authority are supposed to have all the answers, never make mistakes, and always be sure of everything. Humility allows us to admit this is not the case and allows others to appreciate the truth.

In reality, all of us, leaders or not, need to have humility. It opens the door to being human in your role as leader. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have confidence, capability, and good judgement. In fact, it means that you have the confidence and capability to hear others perspectives, and take in additional information as you use good judgement to make important decisions.


In the context here, discipline means regulation of yourself for the purpose of personal development and self-improvement.

As a coach, this third virtue is where I see the vast majority of people fail, and these aren’t people of weak character or low competence. I do believe them when they say they have every intention to follow through.

The fact is intentions are not discipline. Having discipline means that you are going to do it. No excuses, period.

It’s not complicated. It comes down to one thing – are you going to do it or not? Are you all in or not-at-all? Once you make the decision to do it, the pondering is over. No rethinking, no re-considering, no procrastination. Like Nike said, just do it!

Without discipline, the other two virtues are nullified because you won’t put them into action. While there is nothing wrong at all with being a well-intentioned human being, no intention ever changed anything. It takes intention backed with action to change the world.

Even if it’s just your world.


Craig D’Souza is the founder and CEO of Perth based consultancy Business Velocity, which assists people achieve success through their organisations, and organisations achieve success through their people.