“Smartest One in the Room” Syndrome

thinkerHas anyone read Smartest Guys in the Room by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind?  Perhaps, you’ve at least seen the movie by the same name, chronicling Enron’s incredible rise to the top of corporate America and its abrupt and scandalous plunge into the annuls of all-time sleazy leadership.  For anyone operating in the business world today, Sarbanes Oxley and other regulatory fallout of the Enron scandal is undoubtedly familiar.  And while business school may have provided a slightly deeper understanding into the outrageous practices that hollowed out Enron and led to its inevitable implosion, it by no means provided me with more than the most basic of accounting and finance credibility.  So, fear not, I am not about to launch into a diatribe about that!  But I do want to spend a little time talking about the “smartest person in the room” syndrome of leadership and its deleterious effects on productivity, engagement and overall culture.

Nothing deflates a culture of empowerment quicker than an insecure leader.  Now, there are all sorts and sources of leadership insecurity, but few have the negative impact of a leader who is intimidated by the strengths of his team and who therefore feels the urge to upstage all others.  That urge, if acted upon, immediately serve to disempower, demotivate and derail any team or project.

We’ve all experienced the Dilbert-esque leader who jumps to take credit for the hard work and ingenuity of her team.  We’ve also most been exposed to leaders who simply shut up the best and brightest among their employees for fear that a new idea might be suggested.  After all, the best ideas come from those in charge, right?  They’re in leadership positions because they’re the smartest, aren’t they?  Typically not.

Now, some leaders truly are brilliant.  I would agree.  One of most brilliant business minds I’ve ever encountered was also the best leader under whom I’ve served.  But what made him a phenomenal leader had absolutely nothing to do with his intellectual prowess.  Oh sure, the two complement each other.  But I would much prefer a strong leader with average intelligence (yes, there is an intelligence threshold, I would argue, but probably not as high as one might imagine), than a weak leader with MENSA membership.

When we promote individuals into new management positions, no matter what level of innate leadership capacity they possess, it’s natural for them to have some insecurity.  I would be concerned if they didn’t feel a little overwhelmed by the new responsibilities, to be honest.

So, how do we help them avoid falling into the “smartest person in the room” trap?  We coach, mentor and support them through the leadership transition.  We impress upon them the need to leverage all the strengths of their team, to recruit the best and the brightest available to them as they build their team, and we emphasize their accountability as a leader, not as an individual contributor.  It’s the brilliance of their team that matters most (intellectually, productively and innovatively), and their leadership and cultivation of that team.

Look to sport for examples of this kind of leadership.  Phil Jackson led the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to a total of ten World Championships! Joe Torre’s Yankees captured four World Series titles!  Herb Brooks inspired a group of young hockey players to the greatest “Miracle” win in U.S. Hockey history!  Athletic coaches understand (or the best ones do, anyway) their role in leading, setting strategy, inspiring and motivating.  But at the end of the game, none of them ever took credit for sinking a basket, hitting the game-winning homerun or scoring the winning goal that sealed the championship.  They left the heroics to the superstars.  And in the end, they applauded the players who executed their strategies and met the challenges before them.

Why should business leadership be any different?

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