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The Smartest Person in The Room

David Epstein, MD, MS, FAAP discusses why a leader should not be the smartest person in the room.
There are a number of variations on the saying and many authors to whom it has been attributed, but the consensus is to “never try to be the smartest person in the room”. This is particularly important to consider when you are in a position of leadership. The idea highlights several principles that a true leader should consider. They include listening, collaborating, and learning which are critical in true and effective leadership. If a leader were to consider himself or herself the “smartest person in the room”, the effects on a team or organization would be quite detrimental.
When a leader feels that he or she is the “smartest person in the room”, they fail to fully listen to others. The idea is that he or she discounts what they hear and doesn’t consider other options for questions, solutions, or opinions because they think that they know it all. It is important to actively listen and explore what is being said. If a leader does not engage others actively, they will not fully hear what their team or organization is saying. By genuinely hearing others’ questions, solutions, or opinions, a leader will better understand what is going on with his or her team. By considering himself or herself the “smartest person in the room”, active listening is not likely to occur and information will be missed.

“If a leader does not engage others actively, they will not fully hear what their team or organization is saying.”

Collaboration is also hindered when a leader considers himself or herself the “smartest person in the room”. As with listening, collaboration is an engagement process where one person works with another person from a peer-to-peer perspective. If one considers oneself better, more skilled, or smarter than the other, the chance for true, equal collaboration is less likely. The best and most successful partnership is one where both parties consider themselves equals. While a leader is in a special position to guide a team or organization, the interactions with those whom he or she is leading can still be collaborative and framed in an equal partnership. When there is a power differential and it is imposed by the one who is leading, the other party will not optimally participate or give genuine input for fear of being criticized or judged by the leader.
When a leader considers himself or herself the “smartest person in the room”, what does he or she stand to gain from learning from others? Nobody knows more than him or her, right? Well, the truth is that nobody can know everything. There is always something to learn from others, whether it be from the knowledge that they have or the experience that they’ve gained. We learn from everyone. To think otherwise is arrogant and short-sighted.
If a leader considers himself or herself the “smartest person in the room”, he or she will destroy their team or organization. How could they not? If they don’t listen genuinely to others, form an equal partnership to collaborate, or feel that they have nothing to learn from others, how does that feed into the team or organization dynamics to grow, evolve, and feel valued? Nothing good comes from a leader considering himself or herself the “smartest person in the room.” A true leader needs to consider himself or herself not the “smartest person in the room”, but genuinely “a person in the room” to contribute on par with others. The true leader guides the conversation and acts with curiosity to bring the best out in others.  The leader is a member of a team or organization where, ideally, all can contribute, know they are valued, feel that they are heard, demonstrate that they are knowledgeable, and recognize that their opinion matters. So, if you work with a leader who makes it seem like they are the “smartest person in the room”, find another room.
What are your feelings about leaders considering themselves the “smartest person in the room”?

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