Man on the beach, sunset. Photo by Igor Kasalovic / Unsplah. Used with permission.

By Marshall Goldsmith (revised by Gil Dekel).

While we often consider the blessings that come with a high IQ, we seldom think of the challenges that arise from extreme intelligence. Yet there are many.

Major chief executives, as a group, would score well above the norm on any standard definition of intellectual intelligence (not referring to ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘artistic intelligence’ or other forms of intelligence). Yet, like any group, chief executives may do silly things, even as they are seldom silly people.

Here are three attitudes that ‘smart’ people could avoids, and tips to adopt when building strong working relationships:


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Avoid trying to prove how smart you are.

Focus on making a difference, regardless your IQ level.

For ten years, I had the privilege of being on the board of the Peter F. Drucker Foundation. This gave me the opportunity to spend more than 50 days with the man who is in my opinion the greatest management thinker that has ever lived. I would definitely put Drucker in the ‘super-smart’ as well as ‘super-wise’ category.

One of the lessons taught to me by Drucker was:

“Our mission in life is to make a positive difference – not to prove how smart we are.”  Many leaders fail to grasp this basic lesson.

One of the ‘super-smart’ leaders who I coached gained two simultaneous doctorates from one of the most challenging schools in the world, one in science and one in the humanities – with honours – within five years.

The first time I interviewed him, I took notes. After an hour I said: “Dr. Smith, let me read back to you how often you have told me how smart you really are. I don’t think I am as smart as you are, but I am not stupid. I read your bio. Did you think you really needed to point out your brilliance to me six times in the past hour?”

As I read back his verbatim comments, he was embarrassed. “What an ass!” he said of himself. I replied: “You are not an ass. You are a very good person. You just have an incredibly high need to prove how smart you are. Perhaps, in future, you could cut back on this a little?”

How deep must be a person’s Drive to prove they are smart for them to gain two simultaneous doctorates from one of the top schools in the world. Very deep. Does this ‘prove I am smart need’ disappear when they gain the qualifications? Not really.

I have asked thousands of leaders to answer this question:

What percentage of all interpersonal communications time is spent on:

  • People talking about how smart, special or wonderful they are – or listening to others do this?
  • People talking about how stupid, bad or inept other people are – or listening to others do this?

The answers are amazingly consistent around the world – approximately 65%.

Yet, how much do we learn pointing out how smart we are? Nothing.
How much do we learn pointing out how stupid other people are? Nothing.
How much do we learn listening to this? Nothing.

So how much interpersonal communication time is wasted on this? About 65%.

Let’s recall the excellent advice from Peter Drucker: “Our mission in life is to make a positive difference – not to prove how smart we are.”

In your dealing with people focus your attention on developing systems that help employees make a positive difference.


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Avoid trying to prove how right you are, and how others are wrong.

Focus on listening to other colleagues.

It is difficult for super-smart people to hear something with which they disagree, without trying to prove that the other person is wrong. After all, if others disagree with us, we assume that they must be wrong; they may not be stupid, they are just confused on this particular issue…

One of the ‘super-smart’ scientists I worked with, Dr. Jones, led the research and development function for a large corporation.

He was so smart; he knew more about the other scientists’ fields than they did! The good news was that he was very honest. The bad news was that he could be incredibly blunt. When people challenged him he almost always proved they were wrong and he made them feel embarrassed.

You might guess what happened. He was always right, until the day he was wrong. He mistakenly supported one disastrous decision that ended up reducing the market capitalization of the company by more than $10bn!

After this disaster, several of the scientists who worked for him were interviewed. They all said they had had doubts about the project, but they never raised them. Why? Since Dr. Jones was convinced that this was the right thing to do, they assumed he must be correct. Even though they had doubts, they didn’t want to challenge him and risk being humiliated.

One of the comments that I often receive in feedback from direct reports is that their leaders have to prove they are right and they treat people who disagree with them as fools. Any leader who takes this feedback as a badge of honour is making a mistake.

Instead of trying to prove how right you are, adopt the habit of listening to colleagues views. Allow colleagues the space to express themselves clearly, even if they know ‘less’ than you. You can always measure people’s suggestions, in a dialogue, and reach a mutual conclusion that empower people, not humiliates people.


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Avoid requiring people to think like you do.

Focus on working with ‘normal’ people (those that are less smart than you.)

Joe, one of the ‘super-smart’ leaders I have coached, came from a very poor family. He had to work his way through both high school and college. Graduating as the top student at a top school when you are given no advantages as a child is a remarkable achievement. Joe was both brilliant and incredibly hardworking.

Joe faced a classic challenge common to the ‘super-smart’. He could not understand why other people failed to see solutions that seemed obvious to him. I watched as he led his team meeting. Each of his direct reports was instructed to share an update on their progress against each of their key objectives. One person was clearly having problems meeting goals. Joe said: “Have you thought of trying X?” The direct report replied: “No, I never thought of that.”

Joe became frustrated: “Can’t you see how X would help you solve your problem? It seems obvious to me!”

Joe then looked around the table and said, “Didn’t any of you think of X?” When it was clear that no-one had, he grunted: “I cannot believe that I am the only person in the room that figured this out! What were all of you thinking about?”

After the meeting, I mentioned to Joe that his colleagues were not the unusual ones – he was!… I pointed out that no one in the room but he had an IQ of 170. They were good people, who worked hard, they were smart people. They were just not quite as smart as he was… Almost nobody in the world was quite as smart as he was… Joe needed to learn to work with normal human beings, and unless he changed, no one would ever want to work for him.

‘Super-smart’ people can often make connections and see patterns that are not obvious to ‘normal’ people – or even to ‘smart’ people. It can be challenging for any of us to accept that what may seem obvious to us may be a complete mystery to the people around us. In many cases, the smarter we are, the more difficult this may be to understand.

Learn to share your solutions and ideas in a constructive way. Communicate suggestions, and allow people to learn and grow.


* How great leaders help others to succeed?

One of the greatest leaders I have ever met taught me a wonderful lesson:

“For the great individual achiever, it is all about me. For the great leader, it is all about them.”

It can be incredibly difficult to make the transition from ‘it is all about me – proving I am smart, proving I am right, knowing all of the answers’ to ‘it is all about them – proving they are right and being proud of them having the answers’.

There can be a huge difference between intelligence and wisdom. While smart leaders may spend their time proving how clever they are, wise leaders spend their time helping other people be the heroes.


© Marshall Goldsmith and Gil Dekel. 2 July 2016.
This is a revised version of the previously published article ‘Four Bad Habits of Super-Smart Leaders’

Star icon © S Madsen/ Noun Project. Used with permission.
Photo of man on the beach, sunset © by Igor Kasalovic / Unsplah. Used with permission.