When Smart People Aren’t Good Leaders

What Keeps Really Smart People From Being Really Good Leaders

Have you ever worked for a really smart person who wasn’t a very good leader?  I have – several times in fact.  After reading a recent post by Tom Peters regarding the need for humility in a person to be an effective leader, I began thinking about some of the other traits really good leaders have.

1. They really don’t want to be the smartest person in the room.  They want to surround themselves by people brighter than they are who can challenge their ideas and the assumptions in the organization.  These are people who can help identify potential blind spots and detect shifts in the competitive landscape.

2. They’re lifelong learners.  They understand that what made them successful so far isn’t likely to be sufficient to make them successful in the future. They learn from failures as well as triumphs. They read. They pay attention to emerging trends. They may not be technologists themselves, but they have an appreciation for technology and what it can offer.  They exhibit an intellectual curiosity in a variety of topics and activities.

3. They ask for constructive feedback and accept it without defensiveness or desire to shoot the messenger.  They are self-aware and strive to overcome some of their weaknesses, whether professional or personal.

4. They appreciate and leverage diversity rather than surrounding themselves with people with the same backgrounds.  Their commitment to diversity isn’t merely political correctness but an understanding that different perspectives provide a richer understanding of customers and employees.

5. They invest in people through learning and development opportunities.  They personally serve as mentors and coaches. They appreciate that everyone does important work, whether they’re an executive or a member of the front line staff.  They help each individual connect his or her role to the higher purpose of the organization through reinforcement of the vision, mission, and values.  When mistakes happen, they seek first to understand what broke down in the system rather than blame an individual.

6. They establish clarity in the organization. They help people understand the most important objectives.  They don’t fall prey to “shiny object syndrome,” flitting from one new initiative to another one.  They provide what Dr. W. Edwards Deming referred to as “constancy of purpose.”

7. They are never satisfied with “good enough.” They expect a lot of themselves, and they expect a lot of the people who work in the organization.  They seek comparisons with high-performing organizations rather than national, state, or industry averages.  They don’t expect perfection, but they are always in pursuit of excellence.

Which of these traits is part of your leadership capability?  Where could you benefit from improvement?  The Baldrige Excellence Framework offers other insights in Category 1, Leadership.

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