Adam Goodman is Northwestern University's Director of the Center for Leadership and is a professor in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Adam Goodman is Northwestern University’s Director of the Center for Leadership and is a professor in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Adam Goodman became an expert in what makes a good leader by becoming a good follower.

In his early 20s, he followed his heart to move to Colorado—and the University of Colorado Boulder—from his boyhood home in Florida.

During his college years, from his position as an assistant to the president, he followed one of his many mentors, former CU President E. Gordon Gee, as Gee led the university.

He followed a fellowship to CU Denver, which earned him Master of Public Administration (1988) and a PhD (1999) in leadership from the School of Public Affairs.

He followed Arnold Weber, another mentor, to Chicago after Weber, president of the University of Colorado from 1980-1985, became president of Northwestern University. Today, Goodman is Northwestern’s Director of the Center for Leadership and is a professor in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Goodman’s work focuses both on the fundamentals of leadership and how people learn to become more effective leaders.

To formulate and consolidate the present-day conception of effective leadership that he shares in countless consultancies, seminars, workshops, speeches and presentations delivered all over the globe, Goodman even followed his wife’s approach to baking.

“My wife, Lori, likes to bake,” he said, “and I noticed that she always used more or less the same ingredients, but had many different outcomes.”

 The CU Denver years

In the 1980s, Goodman was drawn to CU Denver for graduate school by a mix of students and faculty members who were actual practitioners of the subjects they taught.

“You would be in a class with the head of personnel management for the City of Denver, for instance, or the Chief of Police of Leadville or the City Manager of Aurora,” Goodman said. “And everyone was engaged—the students and the faculty members—we had these incredibly lively discussions.”

Being in Denver, in the city of Denver, enriched Goodman’s studies in leadership to a great degree.

“At the time, Denver was very much the economic heart of Colorado,” he said. “The city itself wasn’t a terribly complex place; if you knew the right 200-300 people, you’d understand exactly how economic policy worked in all of Colorado.”

And CU Denver was intimately tied to this community, he said, giving students a real sense of civic life.

Goodman brought all of these experiences and academic studies to fruition in his PhD dissertation, “Public Leadership: Practitioner and Educator Perspectives.”

“I was able to look at very basic questions: Do we have enough leaders? And if not, where do we get them from and how will they learn to be leaders?”

The Six Leadership Questions 

Goodman’s “recipe” for effective leadership uses what he’s crystallized as his “Six Leadership Questions,” or, put another way, “the core aspects of leadership.”

Goodman said he uses the six questions as “a diagnostic tool to find out ‘What do we want from our leader?’”

  • Vision: Because leaders are visionary, they consider: Where are we going? What does success look like?
  • Action: How are we going to get there? “The link between vision and action is not the same as working hard,” Goodman said. “Leadership requires that purposeful work flows from a vision and that his work produces real results.”
  • Situation: Where are we now? “It’s like the old story about the elephant and the blind men,” he said. “Are the definitions (about the situation) all the same? When I consult, that is where the gaps are. Leaders get people to see the situation as it really is.”
  • Stakeholders: Who cares about what? Who are the stakeholders? And what do they care about? “This is important to map out the proper relationship between the leaders and the followers,” he said.
  • Who decides? “Again what’s the proper relationship between leaders and followers?” Goodman asked, “and who exercises leadership and who exercises followership?”
  • Values: Finally, “What do we value? The leader embodies those values, whether they are explicit and intended or unspoken and accidental.”

At a consultancy, “when you are working with a leader, you may know that something isn’t working well, but you don’t know what it is,” Goodman said.

His Six Questions get at the answer.

The Boulder years 

The foundation to the path towards Goodman’s Six Leadership Questions was laid years ago, beginning in Boulder when Goodman was in his early 20s.

“I was very happily sitting and working at a table in the president’s (then-President Gee’s) office learning from both practitioners and from faculty, about leadership,” he said. “It was ‘realpolitik,’ a virtuous circle. That’s where I got my start in leadership.”

CU Boulder founded its renowned Presidents Leadership Class (PLC) in 1972. With the creation of the PLC, says Goodman, CU gave a home to the nation’s oldest leadership school outside of the military academies.

“Basically, the presidents of the five largest corporations in Colorado—people like Bill Coors—were concerned at the time that there was a sort of ‘brain drain,’ with (CU) graduates leaving Colorado for other states and places,” he said. (The Presidents Leadership Class takes its name from these five corporate “presidents.”)

To this day, the PLC guides the education and development into leaders of the university’s most talented undergraduates, in a rigorous four-year, community-based, academic and experiential leadership program.


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