You’re Not Always Right: Why Leaders Should Not Be the Smartest People in the Room

Being the smartest person in the room is not all it’s cracked up to be. And if you’re the leader of an organization or department, you absolutely should not be the smartest person in the room.

You would think that was self-evident, but oftentimes it’s not. It’s a function of ego, although it’s understandable. We want to be seen as smart and capable, that we deserve the title of leader. And for a lot of people, especially in the past, it meant you were better than everyone else, you knew more, and you absolutely were smarter.

But if you were better at a job than the people who were working for you, then why did they move you up? If you were a great salesperson, why did they move you out of sales and into management? If you were the company’s best engineer, it seems awfully short-sighted to move that person out of engineering and into a leadership role.

So get over the idea that you’re better at an experts job than they are. And especially disabuse yourself of the notion that you’re better at everyone else’s job than they are.

Leaders, Use Others to Help You Refine Your Ideas

Leaders should not be the smartest ones in the room. If you are, you're in the wrong room.Having other people around to help you can make your ideas better. Encouraging people to speak their mind and provide an opposing point of view helps you refine a concept and make it stronger.

How do you get past the “I had a good idea and you’re saying it’s not” idea? It’s subordinating your ego enough to recognizing something better. There are plenty of bad ideas out there where the person in charge thought they knew more than everybody and that their ideas didn’t need to be changed or improved.

You only have to look at the state of Twitter and to read all of the news stories coming out of there to see that the leaders are not listening to the people around them.

But if you can train yourself to solicit other people’s opinions, it really becomes second nature. I’ve always believed good and healthy debate is good because one of three things will happen:

  1. Whoever’s debating you will change your mind;
  2. you can change their mind; or
  3. you can both agree on a third option that can enthusiastically be chased.

As a leader, when you’re working on a new plan, new proposal, new product, or a whole new company, solicit people’s comments and ask for their feedback. Ask them to be honest and to point out the problems they can see or revisions they can make.

If they give you lip service and tell you everything is wonderful, they’re probably not intellectually engaged, or they’re not interested in achieving excellence, so you want to kick them in the ass or kick them out.

Because if you’ve only got people around you who want to agree with you, then you don’t really need them around you.

If you’re a business owner, if you can revise and improve your ideas, you’ll make even more money. If you can let go of your ego, or at least put it on hold for a little while, your people will help you find the flaws and highlight the features that make your product or service more profitable and everyone will benefit.

What’s the Benefit of Not Being the Smartest Person In the Room?

Big things can happen when you’re not the smartest person in the room or when you’re so emotionally invested in your ideas that they’re too precious to change.

Years ago, when I was helping create the new Duoline factory, I had an idea about how we should cure the fiberglass liners we were making. We had been using a chemical method to cure the liners and we looking at a new method to replace the old one.

We were considering using DC current to cure them when someone else had the idea to use steam. When we looked at both options, the steam curing ended up being better by far. Add to that, the downside of the DC method was that the cost of operating it was huge because most 347 volt processes use AC. The penalties we would have paid by having the utilities to convert to deliver DC current to us would have been excruciating from an operational cost.

Steam was a cheaper option because:

  1. It used the available current, so we didn’t have to convert anything and it saved us money.
  2. It is a very clean emission. It’s basically just water.
  3. It saved a lot of time. The old system usually only took 24 hours to cure, but the steam process only took 15 – 20 minutes to cure a line to extraction. We could cure 72 fiberglass liners in the time it took to cure a single liner with direct current.
  4. The resin hardener mix not only had a very low percentage of a highly toxic chemical. By switching to steam, the catalyst worked more efficiently, which meant we could use less of it.
  5. It reduced rejected parts and defects because we could control the process more.

All of that happened and all those benefits were realized because one person was not in charge of a single idea. No leader owned the entire process. Otherwise, all we would have done is found the cheapest way to use DC current and found cheaper chemical catalysts.

This prevailing belief that leaders must be the smartest people in the room is completely wrong. You need an environment where different perspectives are encouraged and opposing ideas are considered.

Healthy debates and dissenting opinions refine ideas and lead to the discovery of better alternatives. As a business owner, you can see increased profitability and better products. It ultimately opens doors to better outcomes.

Photo credit: StartupStockPhotos (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.