Never Be the Smartest Person in the Room

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”

This wise quote has been attributed to everyone from Lorne Michaels to Marissa Mayer and several variations have been quoted by other successful leaders. There are so many benefits to surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you.

First, we should always strive to learn new things. By intentionally surrounding yourself with smarter people, you’re admitting you don’t know everything and allowing others to fill in the gaps. Additionally, high achievers never like to come in second place, so bringing in someone smarter than you will just raise the bar and drive higher performance to close the knowledge gap.

Next, it takes a lot of confidence to choose a team full of people who are smarter than you. Taking this bold move shows you’re secure in who you are and the position you hold. You’re not afraid of someone bypassing you on the corporate ladder. Only a leader committed to the vision and mission of the organization puts the organization’s needs ahead of their own career security. This is a grand display of confidence and character.

Perhaps the only thing worse than being the smartest person in the room is believing you’re the smartest person in the room. Believing that you’re more intelligent than others is a dangerous game. The risk is you’re more prone to dismissing other’s ideas quickly and pursuing your own agenda based on the false sense of confidence that often accompanies a high IQ score. Additionally, individuals who believe they are more intelligent than others tend to struggle with delegation because they believe no one will do the job as well as they can.

Interestingly, new research suggests that it is possible to be too smart to lead effectively. The University of Lausanne in Switzerland recently published a study of 379 mid-level managers in private organizations. They found that overall, these individuals did have a higher IQ than the general population, and there is a linear relationship between IQ and effective leadership behaviors….up to a point.

The relationship between IQ and leadership effectiveness stalled, then reversed at about 120. Specifically, when a leader’s IQ rose above 128, they engaged in less effective leadership methods. They were less likely to choose a transformational or instrumental leadership approach than other styles. It’s not entirely clear why leaders with high IQs experience leadership challenges, but it is hypothesized that being the smartest person in the room can mean you struggle to understand others’ challenges. Additionally, it’s possible these leaders lack the communication skills necessary to convey a vision that will inspire and engage others.

Clearly, it takes more than intelligence to be successful as a leader. Perhaps instead of working to be the smartest or best person in the room, it is smarter to focus on becoming a better version of yourself.