(Sir Winston S. Churchill. Source: Library of Congress.)
It’s an outdated notion that those in authority must know the solution, yet it is one that persists. Take a look around. We look to the medical profession, our politicians and our corporate executives to know all the answers. However, complex problems require more collaborative approaches, more dialogue and an increased capacity for being with uncertainty.
The irony is that most people in leadership roles made it there because of their ability to find a solution and execute. As the well-known CEO coach Marshal Goldsmith says, “What got you here, won’t get you to the next level.”
As we progress in our career, most of us have to learn to let go being the smartest person in the room. One aspect of this challenge is to get over our fear of hiring people smarter than us. Our inbuilt protection mechanism needs to be overridden and it is something I’ve experienced myself.
A few years back, I was hiring to expand our European team. I interviewed a clever, self-deprecating Englishman who at the time was working for one of the big consulting services firm. He was a perfect fit for our team—with one small caveat that he was definitely smarter than me.
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Not only smarter, he was more ambitious, and had more relevant experience than I did. I know we are supposed to embrace strategic, progressive moves such as this but it felt pretty awful to me in that moment. What future did I have if this person could do a better job than I? Had I just made myself irrelevant? What would happen if the organization found that out?
Common sense got the better of me and I embraced the idea and hired him. The story has a happy ending once I got out of my own way. And it was a reminder to me how compelling it is to be seen to be the one who knows the most.
In the consulting world, it’s practically heretical and certainly career limiting to admit that you are not the smartest pencil in the box. In a sector fuelled by egos and one-upmanship, your elevation in the organization can be dependent on this top-dog positioning.
But in the context of modern leadership, this is shortsighted. The very nature of the complex problems we face require a different approach to that of a handful of people in authority knowing all the solutions.
The question is not whether you have all the answers, or that your team will show you up for being smarter than you. Narcissists aside, there will always be people who meet those criteria.
Collaboration and Relationships
We are putting our attention in the wrong place. The answer is in collaboration and relationships. As the research of Daniel Goleman shows, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as technical skills or IQ for jobs at all levels.
As leaders, we need to create spaces for people to talk through organizational challenges, to consider other perspectives, to collaborate more, and to not know the answer. This requires much more of the soft skills of leadership like self-awareness, empathy and social skill.
Being the smartest person in the room should not be an aspiration for great leadership.
The skills of the modern leader who thrives in our complex world are not predicated on smarts. Let’s let go of our need to know the right answer and create environments where the best solutions emerge.