Both types of CEOs are susceptible to the dangerous belief that they're always the smartest person in the room. The business founder might think that since they ran with an idea and it worked, they now have the best ideas. The ladder climber might feel the pressure of everyone expecting them to have the best ideas, and succumb to the same fallacy.
Either way, it's a destructive mindset. You may have had a great idea that worked out, but you may also only have great ideas one out of 10 times. You may have a better hit rate than other people, but no one bats a thousand.
When should you be the smartest person in the room? Maybe during a strategy discussion, or one about values, culture, or navigating competitors. This doesn't mean that everybody else has to shut up and listen--only that there's a high likelihood that you'll contribute most to the discussion.
If I'm in a meeting for product, engineering, marketing, branding, customer service, facilities, IT benefits, on the other hand, I should definitely not be the smartest person present.
Here are the two main reasons why ego's your enemy:
1. You won't hire the best people.
If you're the type of CEO who always thinks you're the smartest person in the room, I've got bad news for you: The best people won't work for someone like that.
You'll limit yourself, and only be surrounded by people who people who have low ambitions for themselves. They're goal won't be to produce original thought, but just to do what someone else tells them to do.
You want employees who will seize the day--who long for intellectual stimulation and the personal fulfillment that comes from being able to contribute and see their contributions work.
2. You stifle great people from expressing themselves.
I recently had a meeting where everyone in the room was an executive except for one--Joel. We all received an agenda for the meeting the night before, and Joel's item was the last one on the list.
When I read his item that night, my initial thought was that it was a total distraction. I came into the meeting loaded for bear.
When Joel made his presentation, I let him have it. He proceeded to respectfully disagree. I saw instantly that he was correct, and I said so.
Now, I've been in this game long enough, and I'm good enough at arguing, that I could have browbeaten him into submission. I can be so convincing that the other executives might have concluded that I was right as well.
If I had an ego like I used to, I might have. But now my mantra is that the best idea always wins. The only question that matters is how is the business going to get bigger and better?
If you value that, you don't value being the right person. You value the fact that the person with the best ideas wins, hands down.
Joel is closer to the problem than I am. The more information and data around an idea, the more likely it is that it's a winning idea. He has the most data; he's looked at the problem the longest; mulled it over the most; he's kicked it, coddled it, yelled at it; he's lived with it intimately.
It helped him to arrive at a great insight. The key thing for executives to realize is that an employee with a great insight isn't necessarily going to articulate it perfectly, especially if you let them have it first like I did.
Sometimes they can't articulate it at all, even if they know they're right. The key is to be able to recognize what they're trying to articulate. That takes not being emotionally attached to your own ideas. It takes the cold, hard light of total objectivity.
When I founded Nav, my co-founder and I agreed that I'd have the final say in everything. This not only made sense from a legal perspective; it best fit the philosophy I'm trying to express here.
I didn't agree to this because I thought I was the smartest person in the room; quite the opposite. I did it because I no longer have an emotional connection to my ideas; I don't have pride in them or guard them.
If you don't have an emotional investment in your own ideas, it's easy to be objective. You won't be swayed by cognitive dissonance or want to prove that your idea is right for the sake of being right.
You'll just want the right idea to rise to the top, because that's what's best for your business, and for the people who are helping you run it.