Thoughts on Leadership and Organizational Health

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Are You In the Wrong Room?

September 02, 20235 min read

If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.

– Richard Tirendi

“Say something brilliant sounding,” I thought to myself. I can’t tell you how many times, sitting in a meeting with other people, that I thought that exact thing. It’s almost like that’s our young egoic brains trying to justify our existence for others, by proving just how smart we are.

I’ve come to a place in my journey where I think one of the death nails of growth & success in leadership is this unhealthy need to be the smartest person in the room. By very definition, a leader has to work with others to accomplish the mission – but it’s hard to truly aspire to great leadership and maintain the belief that you’re the smartest person in the room. It’s all too easy to move from we to me… and then it’s not leadership, is it? If I’m regularly the smartest person in the room, then I’m probably in the wrong room!

Here’s the truth: the greatest leaders surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are and know more than they do, and are always connecting with and learning from other people who have traveled farther on the journey.

See, seasoned leaders realize that they should NEVER stop learning, that there is immense value in learning from others around them. It helps keep them sharp, it helps them make wise decisions, it gets buy-in from those they are leading, and more. Great leaders don’t feel the need to always be the smartest person in the room. When they do, they realize their vision is pretty myopic. They realize if that’s the case, they are in the wrong room.

A great example of this is a good President. Imagine a President trying to know everything there is to know in order to execute the office. Impossible! Instead, he or she surrounds themselves with a host of advisors who bring a ton of valuable information. They listen, and ask a ton of questions, and don’t assume that they have the corner of the market when it comes to intelligence & information. It’s the only way they can be successful.

When Johnny Cochran passed away many years ago, pundits on a news program were discussing the life of the controversial attorney. One said something that I’ve never forgotten. Something like, “Think what you will about Johnny Cochran, but one of the reasons he was so great at what he did was because he knew what he didn’t know. He didn’t try to know everything, he surrounded himself with others who knew so he could focus on what he uniquely brought to the table.” Wow. Brilliant.

What if we as leaders made a shift from seeing ourselves as containers of information (sounding smart & knowing it all) to seeing ourselves as curators of information. At becoming an expert at drawing the best out of other people and letting them shine?

I think the best leaders are those who are always posturing themselves to be learners. They ask a ton of questions. They want to understand the why behind the what. And they don’t have to be the know-it-all. They win by being a learner and by leveraging the knowledge of others to move the organization forward. In this way, they are almost a curator of leadership and movement vs. the originator. Huge difference.

One of the best ways to ensure we don’t feel that we’ve arrived and that we’re the smartest person in the room is to adopt a posture of being a learner.
Here are some ways to do that:

  1. Find a mentor – I’m learning more and more how important this is. Great leaders are always finding others farther along the journey and asking for mentorship.

  2. Develop a virtual mentor network – I’m being mentored by tons of amazing leaders. Sure, I’ve never met them, but I’m leveraging resources that are freely available (and some paid training) that is giving me one heck of an education. You can listen to podcasts (I do this religiously), read books, read a blog, take an online course, watch a TED talk, etc. Some of the most brilliant minds in every sphere of influence are releasing unbelievably high quality content on a regular basis for free. We’d be foolish not to take advantage of this free mentoring from afar!

  3. Join a mastermind or learning community Joining a mastermind means you meet on a regular basis with people who are in a similar place as you, learn new skills, and get amazing input from other people that you can put into practice right away.

  4. Listen to those who report to you. Walk around and go in the offices of those who report to you and have real conversations where you purely seek to learn. Ask them what’s working. Ask them what’s not working. Ask what they are dreaming about. Be humble.

  5. See yourself as a curator of information & decision making – This is key. See yourself in the amazing role of getting to ask questions and draw out goodness from those around you. Trust your team, and you’ll go far.

I heard a story several years ago about a fairly well-known leader that I respect a lot who, after speaking at a conference, sat down in the front row, took out his notebook, and took notes as the next speaker was speaking. That’s humility. That’s a guy who doesn’t have to be the smartest person in the room. No wonder he’s been so successful!

When we feel like we’ve arrived, that’s when we’re at the most dangerous place in leadership. Great leaders never “arrive” – they are constantly growing, and learning from yesterday in order to have a better tomorrow. They have an insatiable drive to be better, and often that happens because of the help of those around them.

“If you aren’t showing up to be better than you were yesterday you will not last in real business.” – John D. Rockefeller

Now I’d love to hear back from you:

Have you ever fallen trap to thinking you have to be the smartest person in the room? How can this hinder your leadership effectiveness? What do you think about the concept about becoming a “curator” of information and learning? Would it make you a better leader?

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