Why Leaders Don’t Need to be the Smartest in the Room




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Confucius said, “If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.

David Weinberger referenced this concept in the subtitle of his 2012 published book Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room. But what does this look like in reality and what does it mean for leaders?

In a world of unprecedented advancements in technology and new players entering the market at a disruptive pace – it is extremely difficult for one person to keep tabs on all that is happening. In most cases leaders ascend to a position of authority based on their area of expertise i.e. what they know.

The transition from subject matter expert to leader can often be a difficult and long process. But perhaps the ongoing progression up the ladder is not based on what people know. Instead, it’s about embracing what you don’t know, which is a different type of smarts.

READ: The Importance of Humility in Leadership

When leaders accept that their role is not about having all the answers but rather to lead the people in the room to find the best solution, a few things happen. They start to ask more questions, rise above the technical and see things from a broader, more expansive perspective.

Leaders start to show some vulnerability, which makes them more authentic and approachable. What’s more, it provides opportunities for others in their team to contribute in a meaningful way, which in turn creates better team connection and engagement in the work.

Millennials are leading the charge with wanting greater purpose and connection in the work they do. They want to be involved in decisions regardless of their position. They have fresh ideas on how to approach things and they want their voice to be heard and respected.

With advances in technology and unprecedented levels of change, it makes good business sense for leaders to draw on the diversity and expertise of everyone in the room, not just on seniority.

To summarise, very good leaders realise the transition required from subject matter expert to leader is not about being the smartest person in the room.

It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t think I am the best person to make that decision, what do you think?’ It is also important to delegate decision making with comments such as, ‘I have complete faith in your ability to make that decision but I’m happy to discuss it if you want to’.

Another method for success is to surround yourself with people that are good at what they do – and then get out of their way and let them do it. Ask the right questions and encourage the opinions and ideas of your more introverted employees as well.

Finally, check your ego at the door. Be humble, be vulnerable, be grateful and show it.

Of course, leaders should still bring their knowledge and skills to the table as it is often the case that they will make the final decision. However, when leaders can embrace the knowledge and ideas of others, they will bring out the best solutions among the team. This result in better decisions, greater employee engagement and better business outcomes.

And that is smart.

First published: 17 May 2019

Gabrielle Dolan is an international speaker on business storytelling and authentic leadership and author of Real Communication: How to be you and lead true. To connect with her, email editor@leaderonomics.com.

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