Today we will explore the sixth bad habit of leadership coined by Marshall Goldsmith in his book What Got You There Won’t Get You There: the habit of telling the world how smart we are. Leaders with this bad habit feel the need to show their intellectual superiority by constantly (and often loudly) demonstrating that they are the smartest person in the room. This constant show of superiority backfires as the crowing leader misses out on the potential intelligence and insight of her team. This dismissive habit is hurtful and counterproductive to inspiring a team to achieve ultimate success.
I don’t know about you, but some of the most stupid leaders that I’ve ever seen are smart – quite smart, in fact. What makes these smart leaders so stupid?
Pride is a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s achievements. Pride often “goes before a fall,” and it isn’t a deadly sin for nothing. We’ve all seen sports events where the favorite comes overconfident and enters the ring underprepared only to suffer a crushing defeat. Pride makes it difficult for us to learn and grow. When Socrates was declared the wisest man, he realized (after questioning many “smart” leaders who were too smart to be wise) that wisdom is only in “knowing that I know nothing.” In other words, the wise man Socrates learned that it is only humility that makes one wise. The leader who fails to understand this Socratic wisdom has this bad habit and is too smart to learn.
The best leaders believe in continuous learning. They not only learn from their failures, but they learn from their successes. Leadership author John C. Maxwell calls this leadership trait teachability. Teachability is not about how smart you are. Rather, it’s about your attitude towards yourself and others, seeing every encounter as a potential to learn. This leader will listen, learn and carefully apply the information he has gathered before he speaks. In this way, his intelligence is collaborative and he doesn’t dismiss anyone in the process.
Selfish leaders are primarily concerned with themselves, their interests, or their ego. They seek first to promote themselves, and then perhaps to promote others, if it suits their own self-interest. The worst leaders in history were selfish – caring about their wealth, political position, or their personal desires. Good leaders who drift into this bad habit are blinded by their ego and serve their interests by promoting themselves. They often unintentionally use other people as a means to an end, rather than as dignified participants in the success of the whole organization.
The model of the servant-leader is a reminder for all of us who need to replace this bad habit with one that is good. This leader considers the needs of others first. She continuously builds up her followers by finding ways to for them to grow and achieve fulfillment in their roles. She gives them visibility, encouragement and inspires them to do their best. By feeding and nurturing followers, this leader keeps her ego in check.
Grace Hopper is an example of the model of a servant-leader. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Hopper left her tenured position at Vassar to join the Women Accepted for Emergency Volunteer Service (WAVES). The WAVES assigned her to work in the Harvard Computation Laboratory, programming one of the world’s first computers.
She was the mother of modern computing and assembled a team of specialists in the nascent computer science field. She created a safe environment for young, up-and-coming programmers and nurtured their ability to innovate and create. Her goal was to empower people as a collective, rather than herself as an individual. So she brought together a diverse team of early programmers to create and design together, believing that ideas from the group would be stronger than hers alone. By bringing people together, understanding the needs of those she led, and subordinating her own glory and needs, she left her mark on the world of modern computer technology.
Lack of Inclusiveness
Most good leaders understand the need for diversity and inclusiveness and its contribution to innovation and successful organizations. They have respect and consideration for ethnicity, gender, age, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, education, and religion in the workplace. Additionally, they focus on inclusiveness and the needs of individuals and promote a culture that supports diversity. But, good leaders may often overlook cognitive diversity – differences in how people think. In many cases, where ingenuity and creativity are called for to envision a solution, great minds don’t necessarily always think alike!
Let’s look at a cognitive extreme for an example – kids. Kids are innovative, fearless, and creative. They certainly haven’t achieved the brilliance of a successful leader. Do you think you’re smarter than a 5th grader? It could be that the mind of a 5th grader, with its openness and creativity is exactly what your next project needs. Consider these kid-preneurs and their money-making inventions. It all goes to show that a good leader should never underestimate the minds of his team members.
- 11-year-old Cassidy Goldstein invented crayon holders
- 6-year-old Kelly Reinhart invented the T-pack to carry video games
- 11-year-old Frank Epperson invented the Popsicle
- 8-year-old Abbey Fleck invented Makin’ Bacon to cook bacon in the microwave with reduced fat
We all have habits that we are not aware of. We do them without thinking and for that reason, they are hard to kick. With this particular bad leadership habit, some leaders may find themselves in a situation where, through no fault of their own, they are pressured to prove themselves and seek opportunities to effectively blow their own horns. Perhaps they are a minority or in a new position. These leaders should guard against the temporary need to showcase intelligence from becoming an ingrained bad habit. Seasoned leaders should strive for self-awareness and get peer feedback with a spirit of humility on a regular basis, mindful of their own limits, for that is the beginning of wisdom.
Linda Cureton is the CEO of Muse Technologies, Inc. and the former CIO of NASA. Muse Technologies helps organizations create and implement successful strategies by strengthening their leadership, insight, and technology expertise.