Atlas Insurance Magazine Atlas Insurance Risk & Business Summer 2018 - Page 18

BAD HABITS OF SMART LEADERS > star general from the US Army. We were surrounded by other two- to four-star generals. Each of these men and women had graduate degrees and were chosen to be two- to four-star generals over thousands of competitors. He asked me an interesting question: “Marshall, who is your favorite customer?” I replied: “Sir, my favorite customer is smart, dedicated, driven to achieve, has incredible integrity, gets results – and is a stubborn, opinionated know-it-all who never wants to admit he or she is wrong.” I looked around the room and asked: “Do you think any of the generals in this very room may fit such a description?” He laughed and replied: “We have a target-rich opportunity!” IT IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT FOR SUPER-SMART PEOPLE TO HEAR SOMETHING WITH WHICH THEY DISAGREE, WITHOUT PROVING THAT THE OTHER PERSON IS WRONG. After all, if others disagree with us, we assume, because we are so smart, they must be wrong. They may not be stupid people, they are just confused on this particular issue. The higher up we move in leadership, the more destructive this habit may become. One of the ‘super-smart’ scientists I worked with, Dr. Jones, led the research and development function for a large corporation. He was so smart, he knew more about the other scientists’ fields than they did! The good news was that he was very honest. The bad news was that he could 18 be incredibly blunt. When people ‘took him on’ he almost always proved they were wrong and he made them feel embarrassed. You might guess what happened. He was always right, until the day he was wrong. He mistakenly supported one disastrous decision that ended up reducing the market capitalization of the company by more than $10 billion! After this disaster, several of the scientists who worked for him were interviewed. They all said they had had doubts about the project, but they never raised them. Why? Since Dr. Jones was convinced that this was the right thing to do, they assumed he must be correct. Even though they had doubts, they didn’t want to take him on and risk being humiliated. One of the telltale comments that I often receive in 360° feedback from direct reports is: “He doesn’t bear fools gladly!” Any leader who takes this feedback as a badge of honor is making a mistake. Unless the chief executive is managing a group of ‘fools’ – a situation I have never encountered – the real message behind this feedback is: “This leader always has to prove he or she is right and treats people who disagree with him or her as fools.” 3. I ALREADY KNOW THAT It is incredibly difficult for smart people to listen to someone tell them something they know without pointing out: “I already know that.” Imagine you are my boss. I am young, dedicated and enthusiastic. I come to you with an idea. You think it is a great idea. Rather than just saying: “Great idea!” which gives credit to the other person, the tendency is to say: “That is a great idea, I already knew that!” which gives credit to yourself. In the future, listen to other people respond to ideas they agree with. You will be amazed how many times the first word out of the person’s mouth is “no”. Grammatically, this makes no sense. If we agree with someone, why don’t we say: “Yes, I agree with you!” The “no” means: “Of course I agree with you. I already knew that. You are confusing me with someone who needs to hear you right now.” It’s subconscious, of course. Inside the mind, the super-smart leader probably thinks that he or she is doing the right thing – giving praise for an idea. But the “no” sounds negative and takes away the praise, just leaving the sense that there is no idea in the world that the leader didn’t have first. 4. WHY CAN’T THEY BE ME? Joe, one of the ‘super-smart’ leaders I have coached, graduated as the valedictorian of an Ivy League school. His parents were very poor and he had to work his way through both high school and college. Graduating as the top student at a top school when you are given no advantages as a child is an amazing achievement. Joe was both brilliant and incredibly hardworking. Joe faced a classic challenge common to the ‘super-smart’. He could not understand why other people failed to see solutions that seemed obvious to him. I watched as he led his team meeting. Each of his direct reports was instructed to share an update on their progress against each of their key objectives. One person was clearly having problems meeting goals. Joe said: “Have you thought of trying X?” The direct report replied: “No, I never thought of that.” Joe became very frustrated: “Can’t you see how X would help you solve your problem? It seems obvious to me!” What is probably the most common phrase uttered by smart people when others say something that we agree with? “No, I agree with you.” Joe then looked around the table and said, “Didn’t any of you think of X?” When it was clear that no-one had, he grunted: “I cannot believe that I am the only person in the room that figured this out! What were all of you thinking about?” Sometimes we say: “No, I think that is fantastic!” After the meeting, I had to explain to Joe that his colleagues were not the unusual Next time, just say: “Great idea!”