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In my executive coaching I see plenty of folks plagued with this problem: They are smart. They have deep expertise in their field. They are competitive and are on the hunt for the next promotion. And they have an almost uncontrollable need to prove just how brilliant they are.

This compulsion can show up in many ways. Here are some of the ones I’ve seen:

  • Lecturing
  • Judging (sometimes with caustic remarks, sometimes just sighing, sometimes rolling of the eyes)
  • Exasperation at those who “can’t get it”
  • Consuming most of the air time
  • Continually reminding others of their credentials, experience and past successes
  • Disdain for the current ways of doing work or ideas that are not their own
  • Grandstanding
  • Dismissing other points of view
  • Putting others down so as to elevate themselves

Unfortunately, these actions work against them. Even when they are smart and capable and driven.

Far too often once people realize they are being diminished and have little chance to engage in a positive way, they revert to other means.

A few brave souls may push back, only to be shot down by the “smart one”, and others learn by observation that engaging directly is not the best strategy. And so meetings become dead space, where folks tune out while the “smart” one drones on. They may nod, but there is very little doing. Passive aggressive behavior surfaces, with the goal being to show “the smart one” that they are not so smart after all.

The “smart” one is so self-absorbed that trust is virtually impossible to achieve. Credibility suffers. Even if the “smart” one has a good solution, they lack the buy-in for their ideas and solutions so the chance for success diminishes.  No one is willing to challenge, so critical information doesn’t surface. Ideas don’t improve. Energy is sapped.

Contrast that to folks that are more wise than smart. Those that are wise deeply know some universal truths:

  • That they may be really smart in some ways, but that there are others in the room that are smarter in other ways
  • That teaching, not preaching, moves the group forward
  • That trust trumps respect – and you don’t earn trust by grandstanding
  • That creating connection and safety is what enables others to open up enough to bring forward good ideas and to push back when needed

Concerned you might tilt more toward smart than wise? If so, self-awareness and self-monitoring are key. Paying attention to:

  • Your talk/listen ratio
  • Your comfort with others adding to your ideas
  • Your willingness to accept constructive challenges
  • Your inner voice
  • Other’s reactions to your comments and ideas
  • The energy in the room

A great rule of thumb: When in doubt, just shut up and listen. Really listen. You may be surprised at what happens. Chances are, by allowing others to show their brilliance, yours too will be seen.

One Response

  1. Kris,
    I agree with you insights into smart leaders. I tell them that they are probably “out smarting themselves”. Your observations are a wake-up call to many executives.

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