How to Lead People Smarter Than You

Am I seriously writing a blog on how to lead smart people? Ha, well I guess I am. Dan Rockwell’s recent post, “What If You’re Not that Smart,” made me think of a fairly common challenge I see on the flip side: leaders who aren’t sure how to lead smart teammates. Some leaders find super smart colleagues intimidating, fearful that if other people find out that the teammate is smarter than their own leader, the leader will lose all authority and respect.

Confident leaders seek out smart teammates because they understand they are an asset, not a threat. So, how do you lead super smart people? Here are six actions:

  • Challenge them with new opportunities. Allow them to take the lead on projects. Give them a problem and ask them to come back to you with some proposed solutions. Don’t limit them to their job description.
  • Teach and coach, don’t boss and tell. One of the quickest ways to disengage highly intelligent employees is to tell them how to do their jobs. Once they know your thought process, give them some freedom to make decisions and run.
  • Value their intelligence. Bring them into decisions in their area of expertise. Ask and listen. Encourage their hunger to learn.
  • Keep them in their strengths. Your average comptroller who excels in detail probably won’t shine as a graphic designer, who must be creative and conceptualize without much detail at all. Don’t expect your highly intelligent employees to operate at the highest levels in every area. Doing so will set you up for disappointment and set them up for failure.
  • Help them develop their leadership skills. Don’t promote your smart employees to leadership positions based on their intelligence. Not all smart people make great leaders, and most of the time great leaders are not the smartest people in the room (and they are well aware of that!).
  • Make sure they communicate. The more confident we are in our decisions, the less likely we are to think to include others and communicate about the decision. Teach them to ask, “Who else needs to be included? Who else needs to know?”

As a final note, smart doesn’t mean smart-aleck. The former is an advantage, that latter is annoying. Be careful not to confuse the two!

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