You Aren’t Smart Enough

Great leaders listen to smarter people

Jim Rohn said, “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”  That is a little more in-your-face than the “birds of a feather flock together” mantra, but there is definitely some truth to it.  So take a moment and think about who you spend time with at work, because it matters. 

You aren’t smart enough, alone, to take on the challenges that you’ll face at work.  If you want to lead well, you need to surround yourself with smarter people.

Leadership Truth

Smart leaders listen to smarter people.

The Paradox of Intelligence

The paradox of intelligence is a lot like the paradox of humility.  The moment you recognize you have humility, you have lost it.  You can’t be proud of how humble you are, and it is pretty dumb to consider yourself smart.  Smart people always recognize they have more to learn.

In a prior role in a different organization I had to interview candidates for data engineering work.  One of the questions I liked to ask candidates is how well they know something, like SQL, on a scale of 1 to 10.  Candidates that scored themselves high were either over-confident or just trying to impress me. 

I was really trying to find out if they knew what they didn’t know.  I had one candidate with about 2 years of experience confidently say they were a solid 7.5.  I then asked them to “describe a correlated sub-query in a ‘where’ clause”, and well, you probably have the same look the candidate had.

A good personal development exercise for you, would be to take a look at “the four stages of competence”  if you aren’t familiar.  Then think back to the last few months, and ask yourself, “what was the last thing I learned?”  If nothing comes to mind, think about what skill you could take from one level of competence to the next.  Then go do it.

Finding Smarter People

I wrote “you aren’t smart enough”, not “you aren’t smart”.  A good leader recognizes that they have not arrived.  There is always room for improvement, and there is always opportunity to learn from others.  I mentioned in my previous post  Make A Decision, that you need trusted people you can vet ideas with before you make decisions, but you need others for so much more. 

As a leader, no matter what your title is, you will have bad days where you need encouragement.  Good counselors will help give you confidence when you second-guess that last difficult decision.  Seasoned counselors will help you navigate the politics and complexities of a corporate environment. 

You need people that know how the organization works.  And you need courageous people who will tell you when you are wrong.  So what do smarter people look like and where will you find them?

Counselor Types

  • Your Spouse – My greatest advisor is my wife.  I wouldn’t trade her wisdom for 1,000 PhDs.  Proverbs 31:10 ends with “her price is far above rubies”, and that doesn’t even come close to describing how valuable she is to me.
  • Older Counsel – This might be your first time encountering a situation, but someone else has already been where you are.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who is a little older.  Asking for help is a wonderful form of flattery.
  • A Challenger – if you surround yourself with people who always agree with you, you’ll start making bad decisions.  You need diversity of thought and someone who has the courage to challenge your thinking.  Look for them, and make sure they know they are appreciated.
  • The tenured employee who has been with the organization for a long time – these are often people who are more interested in the success of the company, than they are the success of themselves.  Be careful here.  You don’t want to find a squatter – someone who sits in the same role for a decade and hopes no-one notices that they are coasting.  Find someone who has been in multiple roles, who has great relationships, and can help guide you through organizational politics and process.
  • A diligent do-er who gets things done – Look for someone who will think outside of the box and challenges the status quo.  This is someone who is not afraid to do things differently, but also understands how the process works.  They will know how to work within the guardrails while finding a better path.
  • An encourager who talks positively about others – Watch out for people who speak poorly of others.  I’ve heard it said “if someone will speak poorly of others in front of you, they will certainly speak poorly of you in front of others.”  Look for people who find the positive in situations, no matter how difficult.  You want people of integrity who will do what is right and not what is easy.
  • An expert – There is almost always someone who knows more about the subject matter than you do.  If they don’t know more, they will certainly have a different perspective that will help you.
  • Someone who takes blame as much or more than they take credit – good people own up to their mistakes.  They don’t pass the buck, and they don’t point fingers.
  • Trusted advisors outside of the organization.  I look to my pastor, my parents, past co-workers, successful friends or colleagues who are in different industries or organizations, and industry research.  Sometimes you need people who aren’t in the game to help you see something else that happened on the field.

This list is not comprehensive, but you get the idea.  If you surround yourself with these types of people, and you are willing to listen to their advice, they will help shape you into a better, more effective leader.  Proverbs 15:22 says, “without counsel purposes are disappointed: but in the multitude of counselors they are established.”  Cue confused meme…  “Purposes” are whatever it is you are trying to accomplish.  “Established” means you accomplished the purpose. 

The secret sauce is “the multitude of counselors”.  Don’t try to do something alone, because, well, you aren’t smart enough.  In Oops! I did it again I share more about how you can identify and avoid bad counsel.  Telling the difference between good counsel and bad counsel can be difficult sometimes, but you can’t afford to listen to the wrong people.

You are Someone Else’s Counselor

One thing I’d like you to recognize before you leave, is that you are a counselor to someone else, whether you know it or not.  There is someone in the office, at home, or in your life that is looking up to you.  Be the kind of counselor I described above. 

If you don’t know where to start, just start being kind and work hard.  Smile, and be genuinely interested in the success and well-being of others.  Theodore Roosevelt said,” Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care”.  Who around you knows how much you care?

This is one of many articles in my Finding Leadership Series.  To learn more, go to Finding Leadership – Series Introduction or click on the series introduction in the sidebar.