Usually, companies hire or promote people into leadership roles because they think they are smart. They have demonstrated through previous jobs that they know how to deploy their smarts to solve business problems, and then they are given a leadership job. This is not true at Google, Apple, or Facebook. They appoint leaders who are in fact the dumbest people on the team.
This is not a political strategy so that they can let others make decisions and then blame them when things fail. It is a success strategy. Being the dumbest person on the team will ensure you and your team are the most innovative and productive team around.
Our firm recently did a project at one of the above companies in Silicon Valley. Their success is a testament to how smart their people are.
Yet, everyone I spoke to at their headquarters, most of them very senior in rank and respect, spoke about how they felt like they were the dumbest person in the company.
At first I thought they were just being humble. Maybe they didn’t want to brag so they said they felt dumb compared to others, despite the fact that they held patents or were known leaders in their technical space. Maybe they didn’t want others who were not as smart to feel bad. Maybe it was a clever way to acknowledge how smart their colleagues were.
The more I spoke to people, the more I realized it was all was true. And even more: they actually believed they were the dumbest person in the room, team, and company. And this belief is a key to the success of their company.
Because these senior people had an attitude of being the dumbest person, they enabled incredible innovation. They were open to new ideas, open to learning and accelerating the pace of positive growth.
Steve Jobs said it this way: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Mark Zuckerberg says “In terms of learning and evolving as a person, you just grow more when you get other’s perspective.”
Google has the philosophy “Don’t listen to the HiPPo’s (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion)… It’s the quality of the idea that matters, not who suggests it.”
All 3 companies recognize that a leader’s job is not to be the smartest person in the room. It is to recognize that you are not the smartest and be open to others input.
Yet, one of the biggest problems most executives face is being too smart. When they are faced with big business challenges, their first instinct is to deploy the same smarts that got them to where they are. In fact, they should do the opposite. They should be the dumbest person on the team.
Here is what will happen if you begin to accept that you are the dumbest person on your team:
1. Internal combustion soars. If, in your mind, you are the smartest person, then all ideas from others start off as dumb. I have seen it first hand – leaders approach their team this way and it destroys team spirit and productivity. However, if you believe they are smarter, you are open to their ideas. This motivates your team to come up with ideas. This is extremely motivating for technical professionals and Millennials. The fire inside the team to create and produce soars.
2. Learning happens. If you assume your team is smarter than you, your people will be forced to come up with new ideas. This will challenge them to learn and grow. Again, this is highly motivating for Millennials.
3. Your career takes off. You are only one person and can implement only so many ideas in a day. As I heard an executive at a Fortune 500 company tell a group of 20 managers, “once I let the people on my team run with their ideas, my career took off. I wasn’t trying to make this happen, but it did.” That was because he realized being the dumbest person on his team enabled others to have a mind of their own, to take action, and innovate. Yes, there were some failures (see point 2). However, it led to more successes than he could have created himself. Year-after-year he was promoted based on his team’s results.
If you want to innovate and raise performance and morale, I strongly encourage you to be the dumbest person in the room. Even if for a moment, when debate heats up, stop and listen to others with the mindset that the people around you are smarter than you. If you won’t or can’t, then maybe you are really the dumbest person in the room.