What if You’re not the Smartest Person in the Room?

Many leaders aspire to be the smartest person in the room. But those leaders would do well to remember the saying: “If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.”

If you are consistently the smartest person in the room, how are you gauging your own growth? Who are you learning from? As a leader, you have a tacit responsibility to always be growing and evolving at your maximum pace. But how can you grow and evolve if you’re always the smartest person in the room? This brings us to the real question: Why aren’t you hiring people who are smarter than you?

If you move through each day with absolute certitude, with no one to question, contradict or challenge you or to make your ideas even better, then you have entered an intellectual danger zone. It’s a vortex that only gets worse. Because you are the ‘intellectual superior,’ people are hesitant to disagree with or even question your decisions or strategy. But remember: Even as a leader you can’t know everything, no matter how hard you try.

Take a different approach. Instead of being the smartest person in the room, surround yourself with the brightest and best. You will be the ultimate beneficiary. You will experience spirited debates and disagreements that result in an increased quality level, and an engaging and inspiring work environment.

Not being the smartest person in the room also means you can finally relinquish the burden of always having to know what to do or say in every situation, regardless of your competence. In a room filled with bright people you can still have opinions, instincts and ideas, but you now have a team of qualified thought partners to put your final decision through an intellectual gauntlet to guarantee it includes the best thinking.  

Warning: Brutal honesty required

Before you commit to no longer being the smartest person in the room, you first need to ask yourself some tough questions:

Where are your intellectual or experience flat spots? Hire people to complement those gaps.

Is your ego prepared to take a hit? Sometimes you will hire people who are younger than you and more knowledgeable than you in certain fields. They will tell you to your face that you’re wrong. They will disprove things that challenge some of your long-held assumptions about issues you thought you understood. It’s a humbling experience that not all leaders can tolerate.

Can you listen, learn and be silent while others discuss and debate? If you’re always talking, you’re not learning.

How to make it happen

Create a space where people have psychological safety, and where they can support each other to produce the very best results. They are free to have respectful debates and spirited disagreements, but safe in the knowledge they will not encounter backlash.

Before you start hiring, make a detailed road map of which skillsets your team members have and which you need to add. Hire people who can quickly move between being a student and a teacher. Avoid hiring people who want to be only a teacher or a student. You need people who are seeking unlimited learning and growth opportunities; they enjoy the journey more than arriving at the destination. Having smart people is one thing, but having people who want to share their knowledge and acquire new talents while learning from colleagues is a whole different experience.

Cultivate and reward an innovative and creative environment. Show people that you value new and different thinking that disrupts and challenges the status quo. You constructively model what failing forward looks like.

What’s your secret sauce?

By deliberately creating a situation where you are not the smartest person in the room, you force yourself to find out what you bring to the table that no one else can. Or in other words: What’s your secret sauce?

Is it your communication skills? Your ability to get the best out of others? Creativity, execution, abstract thinking?

Some people go their entire life without knowing their secret sauce. That’s why it often makes sense to ask others who work with you; they have the advantage of observing you in many scenarios, and they may see skills that you take for granted.

You may discover that you’re the inspiring visionary, or the glue that keeps everything together. But whatever your secret sauce is, finding it will help dull the pain of no longer being the smartest person in the room.

It’s hard to monetize a big ego, so make a conscious decision to leave it outside the room. Be the leader who gives the floor to your inspired, brilliant and thought-provoking team instead.

Related: Help! I’m a Leader Who Can’t Stop Managing in Crisis Mode!