The Dumbest Person in the Room

It’s no one’s ambition.  Who in their right mind would ever want to be the dumbest person in the room? 

My guess is however that there have been times in our careers when many of us have felt that way.  Maybe when we were young and just starting out and realized we had no clue how the world worked.  Or perhaps after starting a new job in a new industry and meeting with colleagues for the first time who seem to know so much more than you.

It’s not a pleasant feeling which is why so many people in meetings like to prove just the opposite – that they’re the smartest person in the room. 

And why not?  Being smart and knowing the answer in meetings is the time-tested path to impressing clients, closing deals, climbing the ladder, and wowing the boss; or inspiring and leading employees if you are the boss.

The competition to be the one who knows all, sees all, and has all the right answers plays out in meetings every day and everywhere, in companies and organizations both large and small, among people in all phases of their careers.  For those in senior positions the temptation to behave like this can be very strong.   Leaders succumb to it time and time again. I am no exception. 

Looking back over my career what I’ve come to realize is that the best and most effective leaders were not the ones interested in being the smartest person in the room.  In fact, often after meetings you were left wondering how that person ended up in leadership in the first place. They didn’t seem to have any answers.  Sometimes they hardly said a thing.

What these leaders had in common are two things: they asked a lot of questions and, this is really important, they listened carefully to the answers.  They weren’t afraid to ask questions, even if some people in the room thought the answers should be obvious to someone at their level.  That’s because displaying their intelligence wasn’t on their agenda.  They wanted to know what other people thought.  Usually they’d ask the right question at just the right time.  The resulting conversation, even if some of the answers were off base, became like a spotlight in the dark, illuminating the path forward. 

Leaders uninterested in outsmarting their colleagues always get the best results.  This is because they are humble enough to understand that one person can’t outperform the collective expertise and insight of the group. No one can see around every corner. No one has a monopoly on the right answers.  To win in a team structure you need every member of the team engaged, motivated, and inspired.  A leader that routinely uses meetings as forums to showcase their perceived brilliance demotivates their employees and overlooks potential huge opportunities. 

This type of behavior is so threatening to the business because it creates a climate of fear where employees are afraid to share alternative points of view.  The canon of business school case studies is littered with examples of the catastrophic impact such corporate cultures can have on the bottom line.

It’s something to consider, whether you just got promoted to your first management position or you’re a veteran of the C-suite.  The fact that you got to that position means you’re probably pretty damn smart.  But to think that your team will maximize its potential and fulfill all your dreams by turning to you for all the answers isn’t very smart at all.  In fact, it’s kind of dumb.   

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