Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Unlocking your Leadership Style: The Brain Pill Question

I might not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I'm pretty good at getting most of the other bulbs to light up.
-Jack Welch


As a leader, would you rather be considered Smart, or Effective?

(And yes - before you ask this is a hypothetical either/or scenario :))

This question is trickier than it seems. On surface - of course, being effective trumps everything. But are we walking our own talk? For instance, how many times have we heard (or ourselves been guilty of) responding to valuable information by claiming we 'already knew that', or added our own two cents into a conversation that we really didn't need to weigh in on, or fought to the death an opinion or point of view that was already completely dead?

If you've ever been accused of being an over-achiever, chances are that being on the positive end of the bell curve has been a huge part of your identity since childhood. Which means there's a certain amount of un-learning to do before you can honestly and congruently say you'd choose effectiveness.

Marshall Goldsmith, author of 'Mojo', goes on to say that 'one of the most pernicious impulses among successful people is our overwhelming need to prove how smart we are. It's a relic of our school days, the author suggests, when so much of our self esteem and success grew from our place on the proverbial bell curve. It has mistakenly taught us that the competition to be smart must be continued in the work place, and manifests itself in some 'incredibly stupid behavior'.

In Mojo, the writer goes on to pose this question:

'You are offered a Brain Pill. If you swallow this pill, you will become 10 percent more intelligent than you currently are; you will be more adept at reading comprehension, logic and critical thinking. However, to all other people you know (and to all future people you meet), you will seem 20 percent less intelligent. In other words, you immediately become smarter, but the rest of the world will perceive you as dumber (and there is no way you can ever alter the universality of that perception).

Do you take this Pill?'

At this point in the book, we are discussing Reputation so we are basically deciding whether you would consider becoming actually capable of better thinking and problem solving (and potentially more effective as a result) worth taking a considerable external IQ-cut. Framed another way, it asks whether the 20% cut in perceived intelligence (thus a potential blow to that piece of one's reputation) would be worth the internal gratification of 10% additional intelligence. In the book, the writer claims that he would not take the Pill - pointing out that all it would do would be to create a 30% gap between how smart I am and what everyone else thinks.

While this may be valid for the writer's profession (he is primarily a consultant and executive coach), for my money, I would take the Brain Pill. I have a couple of reasons:

1) I'm in a constant fear of losing brain power as I get older (I subscribe to Lumosity and do the brain exercises religiously), so I'll take any additions I can find, the hell with reputation

2) Being perceived as overly smart does not help others find me accessible and open (which is something that is incredibly important to me in my profession) - particularly when it comes to encouraging input and critical thinking as the leader of a team. This is essential if only the best ideas are to survive.

Some of the very brightest leaders I've worked with scare everyone into submission - often inadvertently. There's just something about big brains that entice others into awe, panic, and then catatonia. People think that the 'really smart person' has either thought it through completely (often not the case), or that they might get eaten alive if caught in a stupid question by someone potentially smarter than they are, and the risk simply isn't worth it. Little obvious things get missed, which lead to big stupid problems down the line.

3) A 20% loss in perceived smartness is totally fine, particularly as it is offset by an actual 10% gain. I would be capable of better work and thinking, and could sell and ideas in and coalition build internally and externally whilst remaining accessible, and all the while being perceived as just a regular Joe (or Jill)- which will likely mean less resistance to new ideas.

I don't know if this all tells me anything at all about my mojo. But I do know that I'd rather be effective than smart any day of the week - assuming a baseline common sense as a starting point. And this with the confession that being perceived as 'bright' in school was a massive part of my crafted identity growing up, right from when I was very little. Both my parents are first generation immigrants who didn't go to college, and school was therefore incredibly important. 'Do well in school, and you'll do well in life' - was the mantra. I used to obsess for days when I lost any marks at all on anything! -95% and second place and I was done, that was it, it was all over. I would be shoveling coal in a coal mine somewhere in Victoria on minimum wage, chewing tobacco and dining on tinned spam by medieval oil lamp-light.

It took me a long time to realize that out there in the world, this is just not how you get graded and this kind of obsession with ranking leads only to a paralyzing risk-averse attitude that stultifies progress and innovation. Furthermore, you have your eye on a score card that doesn't exist for anyone apart from you, and live in constant fear of slipping. Fear of failure is incredibly hard to kick, and something that to this day I am still muddling my way through.

Being smarter in a low profile way sounds like the best of both worlds. It's probably what Jack Welch was thinking when he professed to perhaps not be such a bright bulb (above). Although unlikely, the point is that his intrinsic intelligence is irrelevant as a standalone fact - what made him effective was his ability to get others to see the big picture, and become their best and brightest selves.

The need to strive to publicly out-brain others is one of the least useful corporate sports I've yet had the displeasure of observing in the workplace. Take the Brain Pill, continue to do good work, and let your results speak.

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