John Baldoni: First interview by Bob Morris

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership consultant, coach, author and speaker. Throughout his career thus far, he has become a highly sought after communications and leadership consultant, having had the privilege of working with senior leaders in virtually every industry from pharmaceutical to real estate, packaged goods to automobiles, and finance to health care. In 2010 for the second consecutive year, he was named one of the world’s top 25 leadership experts by Top Leadership Gurus International. Also in 2010, Leadership Gurus International ranked Baldoni No. 12 on its list of global leadership gurus. His published works include Personal Leadership: Taking Control of Your Work Life, Lead By Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results, a Great Leaders trilogy on communications, motivation and results, and most recently, Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up. Over the years, his many books have been translated into multiple languages including Mandarin, Indonesian, Japanese, and Korean.

Baldoni speaks widely to corporate, professional, military and university audiences. Those who attend his keynotes and workshops find his advice to be practical and his advice inspirations. Mixed with stories of great men and women, and leavened with light-hearted humor, he recommends down-to-earth practical advice that individuals can apply immediately. His presentations blend his passion for leadership with genuine enthusiasm for helping people achieve their leadership ambitions. He is a regular online contributor to Harvard Business Review and his articles have also appeared in the online versions of Blomberg/BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Forbes, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post as well as Leader to Leader and the Wharton Leadership Digest.

Morris: Before discussing any of your books, a few general questions. The last time I checked, Amazon offers 61,303 books in the general category of “leadership” and 18,465 in the more specific category, “business leadership.” Nonetheless, each year hundreds of new books on business leadership are published? What’s left to be said?

Baldoni: We humans are always open to new and fresh ideas. Leadership principles are timeless but stories of how people lead and why they do what they do are ever changing. Motives are pure and simple, but actions match the situation that is forever changing.

Morris: Which business thinkers and works have had the greatest influence on your own perspectives on leadership? How so? 

Baldoni: Of course I would put Peter Drucker at the top of the list. What I learned from Dr. Drucker was the role that individuals have to play in altering their history and perhaps the history of the world. Marshall Goldsmith has taught me to be a deeper thinker and to ask better questions. Dan Denison, co-founder of Denison Consulting and the Denison culture and leadership surveys, opened my mind to the role that culture plays in shaping companies and how leaders create conditions for those cultures and the people in them to succeed. James Macgregor Burns’ insights into leadership, particularly his views of followership, have also shaped my thinking.

Military historians such as Rick Atkinson, Victor Davis Hanson, and Stephen Ambrose have helped deepen my understanding of what it means to serve one’s country in a cause greater than one’s self. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biographies of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and her study of Lincoln, Team of Rivals, bring the humanity of these characters to life. Roy Jenkins biography of Churchill is another source of leadership insight.

Morris: Opinions are divided as to which is the best source of wisdom, success or failure.  What do you think?

Baldoni: Both are relevant. Failure may be a more accessible teacher because all of us have experienced failure. We seek to learn from our mistakes so we can do better the next time. Or perhaps the next time. Or the next time after that. In other words, if we commit to learning, it can be a long process of development. But a fruitful process.

Morris: How do you explain what Jean Lipman-Blumen characterizes as “the allure of toxic leaders”?

Baldoni: I would define a toxic boss (in my vocabulary “leader” is a positive term) as who destroys more than he creates. He may make the numbers and so the allure arises from perceived accomplishment. But if look behind the numbers you see the terrible toll: absenteeism, high stress, and rapid turnover. No allure in that.

Morris: How important is charisma to effective leadership?

Baldoni: Charisma is really the reflection we want to see in a leader. No question that folks like John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan possessed. Few of us can aspire to that, but what most people respond to is a reflection of their own hopes and desires as reflected by that person. So charisma is wonderful, but not totally necessary. And keep in mind, charisma comes in all shapes and sizes. Mother Teresa had great charisma. While she was not physically alluring, her inner beauty and the power of her cause gave her a sense of presence, even charisma, that drew people to her.

Morris: Here’s one of my favorite passages in Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. I am eager to know what you think of it.

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves. ”

Baldoni: Well said. Good leaders let others create the how. But good leaders also assert their leadership in order to get things done right. 

Morris: Opinions are divided as to how best to balance what is most important at work with what is most important at home. What do you think?

Baldoni: My friend and colleague, Stew Friedman, author of Total Leadership, eschews the term balance. He prefers integration. You integrate the domains of your life – work, family, personal and spiritual – to achieve the life you want to lead. Personally I put family first, as do most people I know.

Morris: In Lead by Example, you explain how great leaders inspire others to produce outstanding results. Apparently you and I agree that people can be inspired but that they must motivate themselves.

Baldoni: Motivation is intrinsic. You really don’t motivate others; you create conditions for them to succeed. How? By challenging them and provide resources so they can fulfill those expectations as well as expectations for themselves.

Morris: The first of the 50 “lessons” that you discuss in the book is “It All Starts with Character.” Of all the great leaders you have studied, which best exemplifies that?

Baldoni: Every great leader has great character, but two who come to mind are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Washington emulated lessons in character he had found in classical Latin texts. And he lived his character through service to his nation. Lincoln came from such humble roots but was very well read. He knew the role that character played in literature and it was central to his being. Only by putting his character into action could he have led our nation during its most trying time, the Civil War. 

Morris: Now let’s focus on Lead Your Boss. The title seems oxymoronic.

Baldoni: Not really. Leadership is not always a top down process. Great ideas come from all levels of the organization. Wise leaders encourage leadership from the ranks because it is a source of fresh perspective. Those who lead up effectively are often emerging leaders. They are to be encouraged and development. They represent the future.

Morris: Many books and articles have been written in recent years in which their authors discuss “followership.” How do you define the term and to what extent (if any) is it relevant to “leading” one’s boss?

Baldoni: Followership is the ability to follow the lead of others. Every boss should expect it. One who leads up must respect the lines of authority and lead accordingly. How? You do your work and if you see an opportunity to benefit the organization in ways that complement the strategic direction of the firm you do so. But first, you get your boss’s permission. Never go behind your boss. Also some bosses, chiefly bullies, so don’t try.

Morris: Throughout history, here have been many great leaders. In your opinion, which offers the best example of someone who was “led” by someone else?

Baldoni: One that comes to mind is Franklin Roosevelt. He allowed his wife Eleanor to be his advisor and his “legs.” She steered him to the areas of civil rights as well as rights of the less privileged. She also went on inspection tours of WPA projects and later military hospitals in the South Pacific during the Second World War. Eleanor did the legwork to look behind the scenes to see if things were they should be and provided ideas about how things might be better. FDR was a remarkably strong leader but he allowed directions and suggestions from others, chiefly Eleanor.

Morris: Here’s a related question. Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, which offers the best example of someone who should have been led by someone else…but would not allow it?

Baldoni: One could make the case that Napoleon should have listened to counsel and not embarked on a second war with Britain after he had come back from Corsica. And of course there are many capable executives who got to a certain level and then went for a “bridge too far” with a project their company and people were unable to handle and as a result the company suffered and some lost their jobs.

Morris: In your various works, you have a great deal of value to say about “leading with presence.” What does that mean and why is it relevant to a leader being willing to led by another person?

Baldoni: Leadership presence is “earned authority” that is demonstrated by good example. You give people a reason to believe in your leadership because you have earned it. You are credible and capable and you have strong influence. Those who lead up need to have strong presence because they need to demonstrate confidence and self-assuredness. A good leader can be led by such an individual because he, like colleagues, will trust that individual.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many business leaders refuse to be led by someone else?

Baldoni:  Not every leader needs be led, but every leader needs to listen to others, including those who report to him. Such leaders also need to encourage initiative and one way is to hand over the reins of leadership. Leaders also need to be thinking of the next generation. Groom them now.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Lead Your Boss, Bo Schembechler (former football coach at the University of Michigan) is one of the exemplars you discuss. What lessons can be learned from him?

Baldoni: Bo Schembechler had two great virtues. One was passion. He loved his job and he loved to coach his players. He also had great compassion. While he was a stern taskmaster on the field, he was a father figure off it. Long after his players graduated, Bo made himself available to listen, to talk, and teach them. He also had great presence and for that reason I chose him as example. He inspired authority not because he was gruff, which he could be, but because he wanted his players to be challenged so they could become the best they could be. Not just in football, but in life, too.

Morris: Can anyone “lead with presence”? Please explain.

Baldoni: Certainly. It is a matter of observing. Watch how leaders you respect carry themselves. How can you emulate their confidence? How can you learn to assert your authority in your workplace so that you can become a better contributor, teammate, and eventually a leader. What can you do to become more decisive? Dress the part of a leader; that is, care about your appearance. It’s not about expensive clothes; it is about care of self. Keep fit. Challenge yourself to be a self-starter. Be the go-to person. Volunteer for projects. (That doesn’t mean work for free, it means put yourself forward.) Do what you say you will do.

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Baldoni invites you to check out the wealth of resources at his Web site:

I also suggest you check out his articles featured at this Web site:





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  1. John Baldoni: A third interview by Bob Morris on November 24, 2013 at 8:58 am

    […] To read my first interview of him, please click here. […]

  2. on August 7, 2016 at 3:00 am

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