Telling the World How Smart We Are (Habit Series #6)

The civilian world doesn’t experience this phenomenon, but there’s a form of gazing in the military that’s not considered sexual harassment. It’s the uniform once-over that occurs when service members are introduced for the first time.

You’ve seen it…we trade lengthy, indiscreet, almost uncomfortable stares at each others upper torso and arms to interpret the story told by one another’s rank, badges, medals, decorations, tabs, and patches. We do it because we want to know who we’re dealing with, what the other person is bringing to the table. (And if we’re being honest, we should go ahead and admit that it’s also an ego check: “Have I been through more than this guy? How much do I need to regard him?”)

Link to photo on Wikipedia.

The Uniform Speaks First

I mention this unique military custom because Habit #6 of Marshall Goldsmith’s “Twenty Habits that Hold You Back from the Top” is Telling the world how smart we are. Goldsmith notes that we try to win people’s admiration by letting them know how talented we are but end up causing the opposite opinion.

In the case of military leaders, we overlook the fact that our message of talent gets communicated before we even open our mouths…in the uniform. We carry our authority, talent, and superiority literally on our chests and sleeves for everyone to see. So when we open our mouths to exert our influence, we’re already doing it from a position of regard, which makes us susceptible to turning off our audience. As Goldsmith put it, “Being smart turns people on. Announcing how smart you are turns them off.”

Replace the word “smart” with ambitious, successful, experienced, motivated, or any similarly aggrandizing word, and it’s easy to see that many leaders spend their day positioning themselves above the people they work with. It comes through when they talk about their service history, or in extraneous war stories, or when citing their numerous deployments.

And here’s one of the easiest ways to communicate how smart you are:  tell others that you already know what they’re about to tell you. It sounds like this, “Yep, tracking that.” “Five steps ahead of you.” “I heard this earlier.” “I’ve run a qualification range before, I know the deal.”

Pop Quiz

Now consider this challenge that Goldsmith puts forth in his book. Suppose your assistant (or your S3, or your platoon sergeant) walks into the room with a late-breaking change to the day’s timeline. “Ma’am, we’ll be delayed 2 hours because of a maintenance issue.” What he doesn’t know, however, is that you got the same info in an email only seconds earlier. What do you do?

A) Tell him to stop wasting your time with info you already know
B) Tell him thanks, and that you’re already tracking
C) Thank him with no indication that you already knew what was going on

At the root of your answer is this question:  can you stand to let someone walk out of the room without knowing how smart and well-informed you are? Goldsmith says that if you can do that…if you can let him leave without putting your stamp of superiority on the situation…then you’ll prime your subordinates to feel relevant, useful, and engaged. Isn’t this a better way to lead our people?

No Monopoly on Intellect

Taking Goldsmith’s advice into account, here are some considerations that you should factor when engaging your team, especially when you think they’re bringing you information that’s beneath you:

  1. Focus and listen. There’s nothing worse than trying to engage a boss who’s distracted. Put the phone down, close the laptop, stop looking over their shoulder. Reorient your posture and your attention, and give them the courtesy of acknowledging their time, effort, and enthusiasm.
  2. Pause. Take a breath…and while you’re doing that, dispel the persistent belief that because of your rank and experience, you hold a monopoly on intellect in the conversation. If you heard something you already knew, can you just say “Thank you” and leave it be? If you have a subordinate with an insurmountable problem, can you guide them by asking questions instead of handing out answers? This makes them the smart one, not you.
  3. Sense. Be open to new ideas. When you turn off your tendency to come over the top and offer your immediate input, you let your brain digest the information being presented. This leads to pattern recognition, lateral association, and creative problem-solving. When you’re not busy telling the room how smart you are, you’re giving yourself the best chance to actually be smart.
  4. Edify. When you’ve got a team willing to contribute, you’ve also got opportunity to highlight their talents.

The world doesn’t need to hear how smart you are. If you’ve done your homework, they’ll figure it out soon enough. And besides, you’re wearing a badge of authority on your chest anyway. Instead, make it your mission to enlighten your followers about how smart they are. This intrinsic belief will propel your team farther than you could ever imagine.

Questions for Leaders

  • In what ways could you gather feedback from your team regarding the message your leadership behaviors sends?
  • Do your subordinates have the opportunity to display their talents while you are present?
  • How could you do a better job of highlighting the diverse capability of the team instead of imposing your own talents on them?

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Click here to read the other posts in the Habit Series.


You can access Marshall Goldsmith’s resources and content at the following links:Winning


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