The dangers of being the smartest person in the room


Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of chairing the 7th National Higher Education Women’s Leadership Summit, hosted by Liquid Learning. The theme was ‘Defining Moments’ and I was both inspired and challenged as I listened to incredibly talented and diversely experienced women share their leadership stories and lessons learned. It reinforced to me the reality that we don’t lead out of what we know, but who we are and that each of us has a unique value add, shaped by our relationships, experiences and challenges as well as the knowledge we have acquired. I am still processing the multiple takeaways I received, but what has landed so far is around the following dangers inherent in being the smartest person in the room, because when you are that person:

  • You might stop learning: instead of being stretched by those further along than you, there could be a temptation to plateau in a place that feels comfortable and rewarding. You feel knowledgeable and competent and your ego enjoys being nicely stroked as everybody else defers to your wisdom. Although it is nice to hit these points in your career, they can contain the kiss of death. If you stay too long you risk losing the focus and passion that allowed you to get there in the first place and that are essential to keep you moving onwards and upwards.
  • You could diminish others: although this is largely unintentional, when you are clearly the expert on everything others feel disempowered to offer their thoughts and suggestions. I remember a CEO I worked with who was extremely frustrated because his senior leadership team would never offer contributions at team meetings. As I watched him in action with his team it was obvious why they didn’t. His high level of expertise, combined with an extraverted and opinionated personality had trained them all into subjection and he didn’t stop talking long enough to let anyone else get a word in edgewise. You might find yourself with the greatest expertise, experience or knowledge at times, but you can choose to wield that carefully, ensuring you also empower and facilitate others to bring their value add as well.
  • You may begin to compete: as the next wave of talent emerges, you may see your ‘Smartest Person in the Room’ title coming under threat and begin to pour your energy into proving your worth. It was noted that some had seen this practice with a minority of women leaders who have achieved leadership success. Their response has been to ‘pull up the ladder behind them’ rather than investing their energy in mentoring up and coming leaders to ’break through the glass ceiling’.

Reflection and action:

Are there any other ways being the smartest person in the room can be limiting ourselves or those we lead?

I would love to hear your thoughts, so please post your contributions below.