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
PEOPLE TO HEAR
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
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!”