I get to meet a lot of people, and in talking to people the conversation seemingly always turns to the topic of leadership. I’m always struck by a few things. One, there are so many people who are great leaders and don’t have any idea that they’re doing it. That’s a great thing, because once they’re deliberate about leading, they’re unstoppable. The second is that quite a few people shy away from the idea of being a leader because they think they’re not skilled or intelligent enough in a certain area. Let’s get to the point right away. Intelligence has nothing to do with how effectively you can lead. It doesn’t, so please do not sell yourself short. Regardless of where you are on the org chart or how smart you are, you can and need to lead, and you can start doing it right now.
The Dirty Secret
There’s a dirty secret about leadership. Leaders aren’t experts at everything their team is responsible for. They simply can’t be, and for good reason. It would be redundant for a team to have multiple people with the same skills, unless of course the workload called for it. Leaders focus themselves not on the specific function of the team, as much as they do on putting the people on their teams in a position to shine. They ask questions so that they learn. They align with the strategic direction of the organization. They help their people develop professionally and personally. None of this requires them to be an expert.
Leading without Knowledge
It is entirely possible to lead a team where you don’t have much – if any – knowledge about the subject matter. Years ago, I was put in charge of a team working on some complex financial projects for a fairly large company. At the time, I was terribly intimidated. All that I had in my corner was a single business school finance class and the desire to succeed. The thoughts running through my head were what you would expect: what if I embarrass myself? Will the team think I’m a fraud? If I don’t know more than them, how can they respect me? For many, those thoughts will derail the train before it even leaves the station.
The IQ Leadership Paradox
I was a few weeks into this role, doing some fairly serious soul searching while hammering through finance textbooks and case studies at night, when I reflected on effective and ineffective executives that I had worked for and with. It’s almost an odd paradox, but for some reason, the more intelligent the “executive” is, the more ineffective they are. I’ve worked for geniuses. True geniuses whose IQs were probably more than most of the people in the room combined. Yet, despite their seemingly infinite intelligence and knowledge of all subject matter, their companies were failing. It puzzled me.
Conversely, I’ve worked with some tremendous executives – the type of leader that you’d run through a brick wall for if they asked you to – that didn’t seem to be experts in any area at all. These folks owned their lack of knowledge in certain areas, constantly asking me questions and for my recommendation. In many cases, they’d even take me to their superiors to have me tactfully explain something that they didn’t think they could eloquently do. Unsurprisingly, their teams and the companies they worked for thrived.
Did this make them appear weak as a leaders? Did it undermine them? Quite the opposite. This humility cemented our relationship and their role as a leader within the organization, showing that they valued the success of the organization above their own pride.
After this reflection, it was clear to me: I didn’t need to be the expert. I needed to help the experts be an even bigger experts. To lead, the only real expert you need to be is an expert at leading people. Don’t let the intelligence fallacy cloud your perspective. You can lead. You can win.