When Being Smart is not Enough

“His intellect always gets in the way” an Oil Company President told me several years ago referring to one of his senior executives. He continued, “However, he is so talented. I see him as my successor a few years from now. But he has to learn to get the job done through others.”

 Some of Bill’s (fictional name) challenges were that he,

  • Saw the answers to difficult strategic challenges long before others did. (So far so good, no problem with this), but he
  • Was too quick to express his opinions and did not listen to his team. As a result they felt cut off from the conversation and very intimidated by him
  • Did not “grow” his team by letting them develop their thinking….
  • Manipulated others into adopting his point of view and as a result was seen as pushy.

And so my coaching engagement began with the smartest person in the company (He really was that bright intellectually).

Bill was well aware of these problems. In addition, he wanted to change because he saw his opinionated style as a hurdle to future promotions. Finally, it also pained him that he was viewed as heartless.

The first story I told Bill was from the book “Sacred Hoops” written by one of the great basketball coaches Phil Jackson. When Phil assumed the coaching position of the Chicago Bulls the team was stacked with superstars like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. However they were not winning championships on a consistent basis.

The first order of business for coach Jackson was to remind the players that the name of the team was on the front of the jersey. Their individual names were on the back. The message was stop being selfish by going for personal razzle dazzle that would get them on a Sports Illustrated cover. The message was “Play as a team. Share the ball. Make other players look good by letting them score”. Each player had to learn that there is a higher wisdom in teamwork.

Bill got it. He began practicing the following behaviors that slowly altered the perception that he was selfish and arrogant. He

  • Learned that “telling was not selling.” He began to really seek out and listen to the opinions of others
  • Asked more questions than making statements
  • Validated each person’s position and built on each one of them with “yes/and” rather than “yes/but” responses
  • Recognized that he did not (nor could not) have all the answers especially in areas outside of his function (engineering)
  • Routinely gave credit to team members that made significant contributions.

Bill learned that it was just as important to be emotionally smart and get the job done through others.

Intellect is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for great leadership.


About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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2 Responses to When Being Smart is not Enough

  1. Knowing too much can be the biggest barrier. I encourage people to allow themselves to ask questions as an 8 year old.

    • cedricj says:

      There are 8 year olds that know more about IT than I do. In fact, at our local library, a group of them advise older folks who have difficulty with their smart phones etc. Thanks for your comment Michael.

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