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Smarter than you?

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

Leadership gurus often say that a smart leader surrounds her/himself with people who are smarter than he/she is. What does that mean? If the followers are smarter than the leader, what gives the leader the right to lead?


The way I look at it is this.


A leader’s job is to imagine, formulate and communicate the vision of what the team is to achieve, and then to engage with the team so as to motivate them and get them excited about that vision so that they want it as much as the leader does. After that, the leader’s role is to support, encourage and protect the followers so that they can get on with the job, while the leader keeps an eye on the big picture and deals with things such as interference from higher up the management heirarchy.


Getting the job done will require expertise in several different fields. In a high-performing team, everyone will have their own specialist area(s) in which they excel by virtue of their skill and experience. In these specialist areas, the team members will probably have deeper skills and more experience than the leader does, and so this is what we mean when we say that the leader is surrounded by people who are smarter than she/he is.


The leader cannot possibly be the smartest in every aspect of the team’s work, no matter what sort of a polymath she/he might claim to be. Consider this - if the leader really is the smartest in everything then either:


  1. The team members do not have the expertise to get the job done; or

  2. The leader is more of a hands-on “doer” than they are a leader.


Either of these conditions will likely lead to the team failing to achieve its objectives; the leader will burn out while everyone else sits around in a daze wondering what the hell happened.


Any leader who truly believes that he/she is the smartest in everything is making a big mistake, and might even have some kind of narcissistic personality disorder. No one wants to work for a leader like that.


The one field in which the leader must be smarter than everyone else is the field of leadership itself. No amount of expertise in the technical aspects of the team’s work will make someone a good leader. Leadership is about people - their strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, needs and wants, and everything else that goes with being human. The leader’s expertise will be in understanding people and what makes them tick, and in applying that understanding to getting the best out of their team.


Therefore, as you build your team, look for people who have more expertise in their specialist field(s) than you do. Then you can delegate those aspects of the work to them, confident that they know what they’re doing and have what it takes to get it done. But use your expertise as a leader to choose your experts with caution: an expert who also happens to be an asshole will not be an asset to you or to your team.


Are you an expert?


Ask yourself this: do you always have to be the authority on everything that your team does? Or do you acknowledge the expertise that each of your people has, and allow them free rein to exercise their creativity?

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