The Best Leaders Are Not The Smartest Person in The Room; They’re The Most Curious

I was recently reminded of a founder I coached about 7 years ago. Back then he had developed a climate change solution which eventually failed for various reasons; I wasn’t all surprised when his venture failed. I remembered him while on a recent trip in Cozumel Mexico, where I saw a solution that mimicked his being implemented.

This dude is smart, both he and his co-founder. But, he thought he was smarter than anyone else; and that was his blindspot. While he was open to talking to people, he didn’t like people who disagreed with him. I remember being in one particular situation with him, his co-founder and a couple other members of their team, where they were presenting a solution to a challenge. This dude slammed the team! He crossed his arms and bickered with them rather than ask questions. It seemed to me like he had something against one of the team members, a guy who was good at communication and getting people onboard.

Anyway, when I brought this up to the founder and his co-founder they both thought nothing of it. Rather, they said that being somewhat hostile is their way of pushing people to do more; “a compliment and celebration should be earned” they said. Well, my engagement with them didn’t last very long precisely because they were stuck in this mindset.

And neither did their small startup, as people started looking for other jobs and eventually left.

Don’t be the smartest person in the room; be the most curious.

Want creativity? Want people to bring their best to work? You shut down curiosity and engagement when you shut the door on people’s ideas.

No single person creates a successful business alone; it happens through a team. And the best teams are diverse, both in gender and mindset. You have no business leading if you can’t deal with that. Oh, and being hard on people just to get yourself off is not a recipe for success. With that said, you set yourself up for failure if you think you’re always the smartest person in the room. The best leaders are not the smartest person in the room; they’re the most curious.

Oh, and being curious about people; not just the subject matter.

The best leaders are learners. And learning begins with curiosity. Leaders who are know-it-all’s will feel threatened when their ideas are questioned. Leaders who are learn-it-all’s are the opposite: they’ll seek out differing perspectives and surround themselves with people who are smarter than them; all because they know they don’t know everything.

One key trait of learn-it-all’s? Intellectual humility.

Bottom line: Be a learn-it-all; not a know-it-all.