Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

Smart is Over-Rated

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A number of years ago, I worked with a client that had a Marketing Director who was very difficult. My team felt that nothing could satisfy him. Meetings were contentious. My people felt victimized and blamed. The work was started and then killed. And we were stuck – we didn’t end up doing anything. I mentioned this to the senior client, the VP of Marketing, and I still remember what his response was – “He (the Marketing Director) is incredibly smart”. As if that excused it all. I remember thinking “smart” is not the be-all-and-end-all. That, in almost every business that has people working together to accomplish things, smart is but one piece of the puzzle. And, perhaps, a small one, at that.

Since nearly every business is a team sport, there are a number of other attributes, traits and behaviors that are more important than smart. Smart is a great starting point – but it needs to be coupled with the following.

Listen more than talk: One negative aspect of smart can be a propensity to want show how much it knows. But listening is just as important – and is as often undervalued. Listening shows you are interested in the other person, it expresses and builds enthusiasm, and it demonstrates respect. And you know what? You may end up learning something your smart self didn’t know.

Happy to be wrong, vs. need to be right: I’ve said this before, but it needs to be said again (and again and again) – it’s more important to be willing to be wrong than to desire to be right. “Smart” people often feel they need to be right – and resist doing, hearing or thinking things they already believe aren’t. But it’s way smarter to be open to new ideas, new thoughts and new possibilities – even if (or especially if) they end up being incorrect. Again, the learning you’ll get from being wrong will make you even smarter.

Clear over clever: Because smart people often want to show they’re smart, they can over-complicate ideas with cleverness. But it’s always more important to be clear, to get the point across, to ensure everyone understands and is aligned – than it is to score points with creative word plays.

Long marches, not bold strokes: At the end of the day, the secret of genius tends to be doggedness rather than god-given intellect. And, similarly, almost everything a leader does will be a process of steps and stages, implementation, and steady progress. Success or failure will be determined by the coordinated management of people and process. So, while smart people may want to issue dictums and proclamations, real leadership manages for the long haul.

Help others to understand, vs. demonstrating knowledge: Smart can sometimes be found pontificating or showing off its knowledge (a speedy string of acronyms and insider terms is a dead give-away). However, if indeed you are a smart person, then your real role when working on teams is to help your teammates understand things better to help them (and the team) achieve goals. Period.

Grit and resilience: Anyone who knows me knows that I place the trait of scrappiness in high regard. Similarly, I believe grittiness is second to godliness. Grit and resilience are the ability to recover from stumbles and bounce back, the ability to persevere through adversity, and the ability to stick around longer (“A hero is one who knows how to hang on one minute longer” Novalis). Unfortunately, grit is not always correlated highly with smart. Because smart often believes it “knows”, so will either chart a safe course that doesn’t challenge much. Or it simply proclaims and then delegates. But, as Seth Godin said, while smart folks may desire accuracy, it’s grit and resilience that are the “best strategy for those realistic enough to admit that they can’t predict the future with more accuracy than others”.

Stories over facts: Facts are important to everyone, but especially to the smart. Data, information, numbers and research are their currency. But while these are critical foundations for business, creating stories around them is even more important. What does the data mean – and, even more importantly, where can it take us? What possibilities does it open up? What other ideas can we come up with? These stories will help a smart person drive success better than the cold, hard facts, any day.

Emotional, instead of rational, intelligence: The overly intellectual can be, well, too intellectual and rational. But to achieve anything, you need to influence and inspire others. So understanding people, and what they need or care about, is critical. That’s why “emotional intelligence” is as important as smart. Because success is as much about people as brains.


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