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We Know That You Are Smart; Now Try Showing Us That You Are Human

You’ve done it, I’ve done it, everyone we know has done it. You are running a meeting or making a presentation or leading a team and the one unspoken goal is: Be smart; be smarter than anyone else in the room. This is a huge motivator and a huge Achilles heel. All the while we are trying to show how very, very smart we are, we have transformed into an automaton. We become a veritable Google search of all the relevant research on a certain topic so that we can answer any possible question. We over prepare, we create more spreadsheets and we sweat every little detail.

You know that you are overly focused on being perceived as smart (but wishing for reverence) if you do/say any of these things:

  • Spend way too many hours writing (and rewriting) slide decks or papers. In Upside Down World there is a belief that the more words and pages, the more brilliant the thinking. In our heads we know the reverse is the truth: the more succinctly we can express ourselves, the more easily we are understood.
  • Whip out blue ribbon credentials. Look, I know you went to Yale and worked at McKinsey and won an innovation award. That’s why you got hired, in part. But all you accomplish by routinely reminding me of these autobiographical details is how friggin’ insecure you are.
  • Bury yourself in data. Data is great. I’m a big fan. But when you spend too much time in the weeds you have lost the big picture and what the conversation is all about. Data is another one of those things that we have equated with sounding smart. I don’t think that correlation holds up.
  • Speak louder and more frequently than anyone else. Cutting people off, not listening and dominating discussions screams “Pay attention to only Me!” The anxieties and fears that someone else might say something that sounds smarter than you do causes motor mouth.

The saddest part of this phenomenon is that the more we engage in these types of behaviors, the more likely it is that we are turning people off. They are not sitting there thinking how smart we are. Instead they are thinking “get me outta here.” We have become insufferable and being smart is quite beside the point.

I suggest we all go down a very different path to gain respect from those we lead and work with. If we invested more attention and energy in letting our humanity shine through, we would be granted “she sure is smart” as a byproduct.

What do I mean by being more human? Display different moods, admit that you don’t know something, ask for help, be quiet, invite others to take charge, offer praise, exhibit thoughtfulness, be curious, laugh, tell more stories, express compassion. In other words, be more in the rest of your body and less only in your head.

Being smart is the price of admission. Trying to prove how smart we are everyday helps us keep our jobs. But making that the one and loudest note we play can backfire. And when you put 3 or 10 or 35 of us in a room together, proving who is the smartest becomes blood sport. Our insecurities cause us to fall into habits that are boorish or boring. We are inside our own shit so heavily that we have lost meaningful connections to those around us. When we do that we are less effective as leaders and colleagues.

Short of getting yourself into therapy (which isn’t a terrible idea!), you need to have a serious sit-down with yourself. Figure out the source of these self doubts, see if you can wrestle these demons out of your system, find healthier ways to reassure yourself that you are just fine without having to publicly beat your chest and let your guard down so that you can be perceived as a multi-dimensional human being complete with anxieties.

We assume our leaders are smart but that is not why we follow them or are inspired by them (with a few exceptions). We don’t need them to be perfect or to know all the answers. We want to see some reflection of ourselves in our leaders. We need to relate to them just enough so that we can emulate, respect and trust them. Being smart only goes so far.

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