Three Ways Leaders Outsmart Themselves

June 17, 2013

leaders outsmartHow do leaders outsmart themselves?

The world is depleting its resources at about 1% per year, the world population has grown to 7.1 billion people, and our natural habitat is eroding. Windows of opportunity close quicker than ever now, and competition is fiercer and savvier. We’ve witnessed the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the devastation that AIG caused the global economy, and the federal government nationalizing such businesses as General Motors. Leaders may feel that in such a complex and fast world, they must rely on their own smarts. In doing so, however, leaders outsmart themselves.

It used to be that superior intelligence was all leaders needed–that and some charisma. These leaders shared their knowledge and vision with the team, along with how everyone would execute that vision. But not only can leaders not KNOW everything anymore, they also won’t get followers unless they ASK.

Leaders must use their intelligence to ask questions that will lead to opportunity and remove uncertainty. Doing so will energize their coworkers and create a shared vision that is tested and retested frequently. Not all leaders get this. They tend to outsmart themselves into thinking they should TELL not ASK.

Here are three reasons why leaders FALSELY believe they should TELL not ASK: 

1. They Believe They’re the Smartest Person in the Room
You succeeded in school; maybe you were class valedictorian or graduated at the top of your class at Harvard. Along the way, you learned how to out-smart, out-argue, and out-think your classmates. In your first job, you knew just what to do–provide the best answers. Before long, you were promoted to a management position. You felt that to succeed you would have to provide all the answers for all of your team members. You might have enjoyed some success, but it was exhausting, and you didn’t quite get the results you expected. You don’t feel like your team appreciated all your contributions and knowledge, and they didn’t seem to be carrying their weight.

To be a successful leader, and get great performances from others (the way you used to perform), you must ASK, not TELL. The people you lead want to be heard; they want what they do and think to matter. If it is always your idea or last word, you will not engage them. What hooked your professors and your earlier bosses on you will not hook your team. If you’re the first to respond to the problem and the last voice heard, you’ll be left wondering why others don’t contribute to the solution.

Being smart helps leaders, but it helps a lot less than it used to. The number of Google searches in the last three years have moved from approximately 3.2 billion per month to 31 billion. The expansion of knowledge and the availability of knowledge is growing at a rate that is outside the capabilities of even the highest IQs in the world. The biggest differentiators for leaders these days are not how much they know individually, but how much their teams know (and know how to access) collectively.

2. They Are Responding to a Crisis
You are hard-wired to defend yourself. This wiring is outdated for our more civilized and complicated world. Under stressful conditions, our reptilian brains push us toward action (fight or flight), not deliberation and conversation. That’s not always in our best interests, or our coworkers’, or the organization’s. The airline industry has found, for instance, that under stressful conditions pilots who go into command-and-control mode have a higher failure rate than those who ask for feedback from their crew before making any decisions. If you don’t want to crash, your first impulse should be to ask, not command.

3. They Think They Know the Answer
It’s difficult not to answer questions that are asked–especially if you feel like you know the answer. In answering, you may feel like you’re helping coworkers, but in essence you’re taking away their accountability and depriving them of obtaining firsthand knowledge and experiences. Leaders need to operate from a perspective of Not Knowing. For one thing, it helps build more accountable and knowledgeable team members. For another, it opens leaders up to new perspectives and new knowledge. What they believe to be the right or best answer may not longer be, and it might not be the right and best answer for their coworker(s). Leaders are faced with the difficult challenge of not only posing open-ended questions that hide their own answers, but also resist answering questions asked of them.

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