Dear Smartest Person in the Room: Leaders Listen


I remember the first time I heard the quote, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” Wow, I thought, I have felt like that, that really resonates.

Have you ever felt that way too? If yes, perhaps you and I can get together, we have so much in common. Maybe we should only interact at our Mensa meetings? Let’s hunt for new rooms together. Because truly, we’re so darned smart…

Stop, giggle, leadership reflection time seriously required. When I get that “smartest person” attack, it usually means I’m not fully tuned in: I’m not actively listening.

What’s stopping me from listening? Often I catch myself thinking about what I’m going to say. Sometimes at high-powered leadership tables, I fall prey to my funny bone. I get so amused by what I refer to as “Mommy, Mommy, Look-At-Me Syndrome” (or “Daddy, Daddy” as CEOs are still mostly male today) that I completely forget to listen.

Call me a big meanie. Allege inappropriate sense of humor. But don’t pretend you haven’t witnessed Daddy, Daddy/Mommy, Mommy or “Hey Everybody, Look-At-Me” in meetings, classes or workshops. You know, when those one or two people in the room talk and talk and talk, sucking up all the oxygen.

“I never miss a good chance to shut up.”-James Patterson

I’m not suggesting that you silence yourself to break free from that smartest person in the room sensation. (And hey, I know you’re bright, that’s not even in question.) What I do suggest is that you try a couple of things with a trusted work colleague:

Ask for honest feedback about how well they think you listen.
Ask for honest feedback about how much talking you do.
Ask for help keeping track of how much others are contributing to dialogue; consider together what you can do to support more people contributing.

“You can’t fake listening. It shows.”-Raquel Welch

Truth is, active listening—really focusing—can be draining. That’s why these actions are important:

Track back what you’re hearing (e.g. What I hear you saying…)

Ask a relevant, insightful question but remember, you’re not playing 20 questions (nor are you a journalist, unless of course you are one, but then that’s another post altogether).
Keep meetings short. Make sure there are breaks every 50 minutes.
Not feeling up to actively listening? Better to delay the meeting if you’re able rather than wasting everyone’s time.

“Most of the successful people I know do more listening than talking.”-Bernard Baruch

Guaranteed, the smartest person in the room isn’t the one doing all the talking. Listen for what’s true, what’s filled with heart and meaning for others, what may hold crucial “in-her-shoes” value that can make all the difference in your ability to solve problems.

I get a chuckle from George W. Bush who said, “Leadership to me means…listening from time to time.” Listening from time to time isn’t enough. The greatest leaders are also great learners. Great learners listen.

Finally, David Augsburger gives us this powerful and poignant reminder, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” This is worth repeating. Leaders, for the average person (hint: your employees) being heard is so close to being loved that they are almost indistinguishable.

Listen, dear recovering smartest person in the room: listen well, you’ll lead well.

Original publication, November 14, 2015:

Jone Bosworth
Jone Bosworth, J.D. writes about leadership, women, and wise organizational strategies. A speaker, certified executive coach and strategist, Jone is the CEO of inCourage Leading, LLC.
Jone Bosworth
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