Hiring the sharpest mental knife in the drawer ain't always the no-brainer it may seem.

I've never thought of myself as especially smart at book larnin'. Especially in the business arts. I have no advanced degree in business. Never even took a formal business course. Ever. I've never had a class in sales and/or marketing, despite running my elite sales outsourcing firm, Corporate Rain International, for 19 years. I must admit this dearth of education has left me with a bit of an inferiority complex when I am around well-educated business savants and high-IQ analytic wizards, who seemingly have what I lack.

This inferiority complex has gotten me in trouble more than once. I always, kind of guiltily, considered myself somewhat of a lucky and accidental success. For example, a number of years ago, when my company started to grow well beyond my administrative capacity, I hired a couple of president/COO types, each for three years. On paper they both looked great. Definitely smarter than me. Very confident, take-charge types. Smart. Full of command and control decisiveness. Yet both failed miserably and at considerable cost. My firm barely survived their smartness.

One interesting thing I noticed about both these "smart" executives I hired was that they both seemed more interested in being right, and proving themselves right, than actually solving practical problems within the existential and cultural context of my firm. For them, common-sense daily problem solving often seemed to be secondary.

Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School at the University of Toronto, has written about this a few times in the Harvard Business Review online. Martin harks back to the work of Dr. Chris Argiris of Harvard, who wrote a seminal 1991 article entitled "Teaching Smart People How To Learn." Martin states that Dr. Argiris argued compellingly that

...smart people have the hardest time learning. They are so very smart that they are also very 'brittle,' to use Argyris' descriptor. When something goes wrong, rather than reflect on what they might have done to contribute to the error, they look entirely outside themselves for the causes and blame outside forces--irrational clients, impossible time pressure, lack of adequate resources, shifts beyond their control. Rather than learn from error, they doom themselves to to repeat them.

Martin reports that "before reading the Argyris article I would have been inclined to finish that last sentence with 'despite being so very smart.' After the article, my conclusion was 'because they were so very smart.'" In other words, smart people's very brilliance sometimes short-circuits learning, listening, growth, and managerial objectivity. They may be much too rigidly focused on getting the right answer and defensively safeguarding their elegant "rightness."

Martin argues trenchantly that a good modern business leader and managerial strategist has to step back from the need to find the right answer. Rather, he/she needs to experience failure along with success and become resilient, imaginative, intuitive, and, most of all, open to many points of view, something that may be "most difficult for the proverbial smartest person in the room."

Back in 1977 Randy Newman wrote a deliciously mean and mischievous song called "Short People." The first line of the song is, "Short people got no reason to live." There are certainly times when I would have willingly have substituted "smart people" for "short people" in Newman's first line. Thanks, Randy.

Published on: Aug 11, 2014
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