Mark Goulston and John Ullmen: An interview by Bob Morris

Goulston, MarkMark Goulston, M.D., is a prominent psychiatrist, business advisor, and executive coach. He is co-founder of Heartfelt Leadership whose mission is: “Daring to Care.” He is the author of the bestselling Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (AMACOM, 2009) and subject of the PBS special “Just Listen with Dr. Goulston.” Featured in major media from Harvard Business Review to Oprah Radio, he also writes a Tribune syndicated career column and blogs for Fast Company, Huffington Post, and Psychology Today. Goulston’s education includes a B.A. from UC Berkeley, an M.D. from Boston University, and residency in psychiatry at UCLA. He went on to be a professor at UCLA for more than twenty years.

Ullmen, JohnJohn Ullmen, Ph.D., is an internationally acclaimed executive coach who is on faculty at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. He oversees and conducts popular feedback-based seminars on influence in organizations. Ullmen began his career as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, where he served as a lead systems engineer for a top-secret Joint Chiefs of Staff intelligence program. He holds a B.S. from the U.S. Air Force Academy, a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University, and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

They are the co-authors of Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In, published by AMACOM (January 2013), and both live in Los Angeles, California.

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Morris: Before discussing Real Influence, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Goulston: The Dean of Students at my medical school who when I hit a wall, or rather a wall fell on me, stood up for me when I couldn’t, believed in me what I didn’t, saw a future for me that I couldn’t see, and refused to let me fail.

Ullmen: My parents, though it took me a long time to realize it. They had very difficult childhoods, hard working lives and a challenging marriage. When I finally gained a long-overdue perspective on the sacrifices they made for me and my sister, I changed.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Ullmen: My mentor, colleague, dear friend and fellow erratic golfer Professor Sam Culbert. He gives me unconditional love and support, and also kicks me in the caboose when I need do more or better.

Goulston: I am blessed to have leadership guru Warren Bennis as a mentor. I love Warren and he has told me that he loves me. Every day that gives me something to live up to.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Goulston: Actually it was in the past couple years when I realized I couldn’t work with people that I didn’t like, trust or respect and that I didn’t think I could come to like, trust or respect. Essentially I can’t and don’t want to work with people I can’t root for. I have made some exceptions with people who do great things for the world or others.

Ullmen: I was stressed for many years by my lack of career clarity, until a chance meeting and conversation w/the Chairman of a large organization that turned into an impromptu coaching session helped me discover it was there all along.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Ullmen: Earlier I mentioned my parents, who worked so hard to afford to live in a neighborhood with a good school so my sister and I could have a quality education. That had a ripple effect that led to opportunities at amazing institutions for my undergrad, masters and PhD. I’ll never repay enough what those teachers, coaches and mentors gave me.

Goulston: I don’t know if it is so much what I learned, but how I learned and I have used my education to be a life long learner and to do learn from many angles. That has enabled me to more easily go to the other person’s “there.”

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Goulston: To listen “into” people sooner and hear what they were not saying that was critical to understanding them.

Ullmen: Organizational politics and invisible lines of influence that are “off the org chart.” It’s like in movies when they use smoke to show laser beams that trip the alarms. Learning how to decode how things happen despite hierarchy, policy and “face value” communication is enormously illuminating. It’s sometimes frustrating, but helps you get safely from here to there.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Ullmen: You’ll think I’m joking, but I’m not, mostly. I love how Meet the Parents highlights the compounding problems of being inauthentic—in this case it’s about family systems but there are parallels to organization systems. Ben Stiller’s character contorts himself hilariously in ill-fated attempts to impress his girlfriend’s father, a tough guy ex-CIA agent played by Robert DeNiro. Through the lens of authentic vs. well-intended but inauthentic communication, the family dinner scene is a must-see.

Goulston: I don’t know if it’s because it is recent, but Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg has to be near the top. In the movie Lincoln seemed so principle and duty bound, that it gave him the perseverance he needed to make it through the Civil War and to not compromise on passing the 13th Amendment in order to end it sooner.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Goulston: Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls by Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis is a wonderful explanation about the importance of judgment to leadership. Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business and Influence Others by Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas which shows the power of asking great questions to get people to open up and to connect with them.

Ullmen: Frank McCourt’s amazing Angela’s Ashes reminds me how there is so much more to the people around us at work than we realize. We bring our whole selves and whole lives to work with us, and show a portion. The un-shown parts matter too.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“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.”

Ullmen: What a coincidence. I use the last four lines in my MBA leadership class as the finale in a series of about a dozen different quotes on leadership. (It counters the opening quote from Machiavelli on how it’s “better to be feared than loved.”). To me, Lao-Tzu counsels unselfish service: Great leaders eventually work themselves out of a job, and take pride in it, because they develop the confidence and capabilities of people around them.

Goulston: When you enable your people to self-discover what’s important to their organization and themselves they take ownership of their lives instead of feeling that it belongs to others. This adds a wonderful sense of vitality to their lives.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Goulston: Seeking the truth can be a noble way to live one’s life, but too often those who find the truth are seduced into a state of self-righteousness.

Ullmen: …and also beware those who think they have found it but pretend they’re still seeking it.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Ullmen: I wish I were as insightful, funny and concise as Oscar Wilde. I’m encouraged he’d encourage me to be me. Still working on that.

Goulston: I have always failed whenever I tried to be something other than who I am; since I have finally made peace with it, it has freed me to hear an pursue a calling that beckons to me every day to find heartfelt leaders who dare to care. And so I have co-founded a global community Heartfelt Leadership.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Goulston: You can’t shift a paradigm from inside one.

Ullmen: Reminds me of a related quote I wish I could attribute, but don’t know who said it first. “Stop having problems!” The idea is to construct new mindsets, alternatives, connections, etc., to make things better, vs. objectifying and solidifying the old patterns that created the impulse to invest them with more solidity than they deserve as “problems” in the first place.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Ullmen: When stressed or hurting, we often overlook root causes in search for immediate relief. We push ourselves and press our leaders to “do something.” Typically that leads to misguided short-term responses that perpetuate patterns more than inspire progress. (Which takes us back to your Einstein quote above.)

Goulston: This gets back to the book I mentioned earlier called Judgment by Tichy and Bennis. I think part of judgment and wisdom is to know what’s important and what isn’t, what worth fighting for and what isn’t, what’s worth dying for and what’s not.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: [begin italics] organizational judgment [end italics]. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Goulston: I agree and can’t improve on what he said.

Ullmen: Yes, and the buck still needs to stop somewhere. Otherwise it’s all about revisionist history, convenient reframing and empty claims about taking responsibility. I admire leaders who truly take responsibility.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Ullmen: I like the quote, and it takes me in another direction. In my experience it’s hard to know your deeply held assumptions in advance. They become apparent only after they don’t work. Unplanned mistakes are inevitable and often painful. The challenge is to learn from them and bounce back, vs. ignoring them (they’ll happen again) or being paralyzed by them.

Goulston: I agree with that. You learn much more from making mistakes, recognizing and accepting that you have made them, taking full responsibility for them and learning from them. Successful people don’t make fewer mistakes; they repeat fewer of the same mistakes.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Goulston: They don’t do enough to satisfy themselves sufficiently to have confidence that others have competence and judgment to do the right things and do things right. When you do develop that confidence, it is much easier to let go of things and to delegate.

Ullmen: Past a certain point, less control leads to more influence. But for many leaders it’s challenging to get past that point, because of personal pride, ego, and the way things used to work up until that point.

Morris:The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Ullmen: Absolutely! It’s often a centerpiece of my work with leaders. There are many great resources available, but given the historical reference of your question, I’d like to share with your readers a wonderful, unique point of view on the Darwinian competition of narratives for leadership effectiveness: Leading Minds by Howard Gardner and Emma Laskin.

Goulston: Yes, people communicate culture through stories. A story is a portable storage unit for one’s dreams, fears, hopes, humor and sorrows that people visit or visits people from time to time, for them to stay in contact with their humanity.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Goulston: I believe that resistance doesn’t exist; what we think is resistance is non-rational, non-functional self-preservation in someone who believes their self is being threatened. That is why it’s important to go to the “their there” of others at which point people lower their walls and are more open to you.

Ullmen: You can’t coerce them (it’s unethical) or persuade them (it’s temporary). To achieve meaningful, sustained change, people need to buy-in on their own terms. Leaders need to listen, learn and help others see how staying the (new) course helps them achieve their gain and avoid their pain.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the great need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Ullmen: Having taught for years at a prestigious business school, I can own my part of the need for improvement. I need to help young professionals prepare for how life will be in organizations, not just how it’s been.

Goulston: Results that are uninformed by good core values will sooner or later bring down mankind.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

Goulston: To be able to envision a transcendent and therefore transformational vision that is so compelling that they, their people, customers, clients, shareholders and community will eagerly want to live into. A new Moon mission for the Millennium.

Ullmen: Adapting to “local” politics in a truly global economy, adjusting to ever growing open-source solutions that displace former sources of revenue, and inspiring commitment from talented people who will have more options than ever before.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Real Influence. When and why did you decide to write it?

Ullmen: These days the dominant paradigm is about tactics and techniques to get people to comply. There is a tremendous amount of valuable research and insight on this front, but it says nothing about what happens to your relationships and reputation after using such tactics. The best leaders I’ve had the privilege to coach don’t think that way about dealing with their people—using techniques to maneuver them into compliance. The people who care most about me in my life don’t treat me that way. It was time for a point of view on transparent influence that gets results and strengthens relationships too.

Goulston: Pushing and hard selling has created a Darwinian imperative that is not constructive. Survival of the fittest will lead to the survival of nobody. The Zero Sum game needs to be stopped. Real Influence is a step in that direction.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Goulston: Leaders influence; managers and sales people persuade. Positive influence can last a lifetime, persuasion sometimes doesn’t last past a conversation.

Ullmen: The high impact leaders from all walks of life whom we interviewed in depth tended not to talk about how to get people to do what you want. Rather, they talked about role models who had the most positive influence on them in their lives, who set an example they constantly try to live up to in how they get things done with people.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Ullmen: We knew we wanted to have a new step-by-step approach that people can use to exercise transparent, effective, ongoing positive influence. But the influence role models we interviewed provided so many amazing personal stories from work and life, they hijacked the book.

Goulston: I think that over time we shifted the tone from trying to persuade people about influence to sharing stories and just hoping they would influence readers.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of unreal influence?

Goulston: Influential people naturally focus (unconsciously) on: 1. They go for great outcomes for people. They are more about possibility than opportunity. 2. They listen past their blind spots. Their personal and selfish egos do not enter into the equation in their dealings with others. 3. They engage the other person in “their there.” They get the other person’s situation, get the other person’s position in that situation, and get a solution for moving to a great outcome. 4. They do more than others expect, both before meeting them, while meeting them, and after meeting them.

Morris: What is the single most serious consequence of being and/or becoming disconnected?

Ullmen: It can dramatically and negatively affect your results, reputation and relationships.

Morris: Which of the four traps that disconnect people seems to cause the most serious problems? Why?

Goulston: I think it is what we call “the habit handicap.” In fact I don’t believe resistance exists in the world, I think it’s more often a matter of: non-rational, non-functional self-preservation as people become emotionally and psychologically locked in their POV and push back if anyone tries to push or pull the out of it.

Morris: How best to avoid or escape from those traps?

Ullmen: When you find yourself in old patterns instead of new progress, pushing instead of learning or complaining instead of exploring, it’s a good time to check whether you’re stuck in one of those human nature traps. Pause before interacting with anyone and ask yourself the question: “What’s it like for the other person right now?” meaning what might they be most concerned, worried, excited about. Then check it out and if you are not correct, have them correct it to what is accurate. Also surround yourself with people who can think independently, can challenge you and make suggestions. Even when you’re confident you’re right, don’t stake your ego on an alternative prematurely. Instead, ask: “How can we make this better?”

Morris: You provide a four-step process by which to develop real influence. Which of the steps seems to be most difficult to complete? Why?

Goulston: Listening past your blind spots. When you’re a hammer the world is a nail and when you’re a nail, you’re about to get hammered. In either case the other person can feel that you’re acting in a way that has little to do with the conversation you’re having and in both cases you come across as insecure.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of each of the “Three Rs”? First, Great Result

Goulston: A great result is exceeding what nearly everyone thought was possible.

Morris: Next, Great Reputation

Ullmen: Becoming someone who is not only respected, but outside your earshot people actively say positive things about what it’s like to work with you, influence you, and get influenced by you.

Morris: Finally, Great Relationships

Goulston: You develop those wonderful relationships where you cannot speak for months and take off exactly where you left off with no recriminations or guilt trips.

Morris: How best to master four-level listening?

Goulston: The best way to listen into someone is to: 1. Say to yourself, I am going to be open to whatever I learn and I am going to help this person in any way I can.

2. Look into their left eye and focus on their iris which is connected to their right emotional brain with a mindset of inquiry vs. inquisition or intimidation.

3. If you do this correctly, their face will become blurry except for their left eye.

4. As they talk, listen intently and ask deepening questions such as, “What really your greatest concern?” “What really is your greatest opportunity and the one you should seize if you can?” or listen for emotionally charged words or the use of hyperbole and after they pause, say, “Say more about _______” or “Really! (said with interest and an encouragement for them to say more and go deeper).

5. At the end of the conversation say, “This is much too important for me not to have understand exactly what you said and why it’s important to you, might I play that back to you?”

Morris: What are the “Three Gets of Engage”?

Ullmen: 1. Situational Awareness: You Get “It.” You show that you understand the opportunities and challenges a person is facing. You grasp the person’s reality—their organization, environment, constraints, etc.

2. Personal Awareness: You Get “Them.” You show that you understand other people’s strengths, weaknesses, goals, hopes, priorities, needs, limitations, fears, and concerns. In addition, you demonstrate that you’re willing to connect with them on a personal level.

3. Solution Awareness: You Get Their “Path to Progress.” You show people a positive path that enables them to make progress on their own terms. You give them options and alternatives that empower them.

Morris: How can “getting out of the way” increase one’s influence on others?

Goulston: Inside most “resistant” and closed off people is a desire to be open and to trust, but they have too often been taken advantage of that they now have their guard up in many situations. Getting out of the way, means letting go of your agenda and “what’s in it for you?” and lean into truly being of service. It’s amazing how hungry people are for that.

Morris: How and why is [begin italics] gratitude [end italics] one of the major factors in becoming a power influencer?

Ullmen: Gratitude reminds you of the influencer you want to be. Positive influencers are driven, but not ego-driven. They aren’t selfish; they’re appreciative. A state of gratitude is inconsistent with selfish agenda-driven pushing and maneuvering. Others pick up on that, and feel safer to drop their defenses and check their cynicism and skepticism. Gratitude influences us to be our better selves. That in turn invites others to do the same. It’s a key to what makes positive influence contagious across differences in personal life, across boundaries in organizations, and across generations too.

Morris: Of all the examples in the book, which – in your opinion – best exemplifies real influence? Please explain.

Goulston: I have to bring up a personal friend Renard Wright. After starting a basketball league in a dangerous part of Queens, he was able to steer children, teenagers and young adults away from gangs and crime. Years later they continue to come back into his life to let him know how much he helped and even saved them. I love Renard.

Ullmen: There are so many amazing examples, I couldn’t pick a “best,” but one that’s caught a lot of attention is the untold story behind the final song that Ray Charles ever recorded. It was a duet with Elton John on what would become Charles’ multi-Grammy winning, highest selling CD of his entire career. But in the course of making this CD, Charles was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and was nearly unable to see it all the way through. How it all came together is incredible, right down to what happened in the studio on that last day.

Morris: Of all the films you have seen, which best dramatizes the power of real influence?

Goulston: It may be schmaltzy, but one of my favorite scenes comes from the movie As Good As It Gets where Helen Hunt’s (Academy Award winning) character is such a person of profound kindness, dedication, sacrifice and integrity that she makes Jack Nicholson’s character “want to be a better man.”

Ullmen: A great movie for this is Invictus, based on the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin. It’s the story about Nelson Mandela’s leadership in South Africa when the country was on the verge of being torn apart. In one scene after another Mandela connects with people across differences and injustices in service of the greater good of bringing the country together, using Rugby as an unlikely, long-shot catalyst. Also see the ESPN documentary titled “The 16th Man” which includes footage of Mandela during this time, the tournament, and interviews with the players. Morgan Freeman, who plays Mandela in the movie, narrates the documentary.

Morris: Mohandas Gandhi once suggested that we “be the change we would achieve in the world.” Here’s a question that occurred to me as I again re-read your book before formulating questions for this interview. What about developing real influence on ourselves, over our own values, attitudes, and behavior? What are your thoughts about that?

Ullmen: Terrific point. I think there’s a connection between your question and a point of view that we’ve learned that to be a person of positive influence, it’s first important to be influenceable. We need to listen, learn, reflect and be open to change. We might be wrong. We might be missing something. We might be able to add something. We might grow. It doesn’t mean being weak or giving in, it’s being open-minded and open-hearted.

Goulston: I love this question. Why not think of a great outcome for ourselves and be who we could be, be someone who leaves the world better than we find it and brings kindness to a very cold world?

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Real Influence and wants to increase and improve the principled persuasion skills of as many employees as possible, at all levels and in all areas of operation within the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Goulston:  Meet with all of their employees. Share a story of someone who stood up for them when they couldn’t, stood by them during a crisis and wouldn’t let them fail, and stood up to them in private to push them to do something they didn’t think they could do or stop them from doing something foolish. Then have everyone in the company pair up with someone else, and share a similar story. Then ask everyone what would be the effect (little, moderate, huge) if they “paid it forward” to someone else what was done onto them. Thus far, our response to such a survey has been nearly universally “huge.” Then have partners commit to either standing up for, standing by someone in a crisis, or standing up to them in private to make them better and hold each other accountable. That is a game and culture changer.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Real Influence, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Goulston: If small business owners practice the four steps of Real Influence, they will discover the lasting power of inspiration over intimidation.

Ullmen: I recently spoke to a group of entrepreneurs, and they keyed in on the value of Level 4 Listening. It comes naturally for them to drive hard, and they realized that doesn’t have to come at the expense of insightful, connective listening to inspire better ideas and strengthen the team. It’s possible—and preferable—to drive and listen with equal vigor.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Goulston: : Q: What do you imagine a world would be like where pushing was replaced by real influence? A: It would be the world that could be.

Ullmen: Q: What’s the most valuable thing you learned from all the high-impact leaders you interviewed and worked with? A: The importance of asking yourself — Who are the people who had the most positive influence on you, and how can you live up to that legacy in how you get things done with people every day?

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Mark and John cordially invite you to check out the bonus resources at this website:

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