How Smart People Botch Leadership

People want smart Leaders, but raw intellect may hamper effective Leadership. How so? Based on studies by Marshall Goldsmith, Leadership Guru, smart Leaders make predictable mistakes:

Proving how smart you are:

Smart Leaders learn – from an early age – how demonstrate their brilliance. In fact, they get lots of recognition for being smart, from friends, parents, teachers, coaches – just about everyone. When smart Leaders enter the workforce, they continue brandishing their intellectual prowess. It is a conditioned reflex.

About 65% of their interpersonal communication is devoted to either: a) showing their brilliance (or listening to others tell them how smart they are), or b) talking about the stupidity of others (or listening to others make the same observation).

How should smart people get out of this habit? They should remember Peter Drucker’s advice:

“Our mission in life is to make a positive difference – not to prove how smart we are.”

Proving how right they are:

Smart people have more data at their fingertips – facts, figures, concepts and so forth. So, they are proficient at winning their arguments. This can be a ‘blind spot’. Why?

When smart folks blunder – which inevitably happens – the losses could be big, because they have quashed divergent opinions. Smart Leaders should ask themselves two questions:

• What if I am wrong?
• Is it worthwhile being right? In other words, does it matter?

If winning the argument is unimportant, why waste time showing how smart you are?

I already know that: It is tough for smart people to listen as someone telling them things they already know. Smart people usually say: “I already know that.”

Alternatively, some Leaders say “No, I agree with you.” This is a complex subconscious response: “No” means “Of course I agree with you. I already knew that. Don’t confuse me with someone who doesn’t know”. In general, Leaders should avoid starting phrases with “no”. Negation undermines the contribution of the other person.

Under these circumstances, Leaders should simply say: “Great idea!”, or “Interesting”, “That makes sense” and so forth. Again, the mission is to make a positive difference, not to show your brilliance.

Super-smart’ people can often make connections and see patterns that are invisible to others. Then, they assume others should see the same things. That’s not reasonable.

Smart Leaders should never make others feel ashamed for not making the same cognitive connections as the Leader.
Leadership is a transformative process – even for the best and brightest:

To be fair, these bad habits are shared by many people, but they are particularly irksome for really smart people, who are unaware of these ‘blind spots’.

It is a cruel irony. People move up organizations by being top achievers, and by being super smart. Often achievers are egocentric: “It is all about me”. Then they become Leaders. Suddenly it is about “them” – the team, division, or organization. What a switch!

Yes, there is a difference between intelligence and wisdom: Smart Leaders spend too much time showing others how clever they are, whereas wise Leaders transform average folks into heroes.

Peter Labrie
Art of Leadership



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