The Four Stupidities of the Smart Leader

To be a good leader, we have to be intelligent: intellectually, socially and emotionally intelligent.  In a previous blog post, I even gave some advice on 8 Ways to Be As Smart As We Can Be.  Being smart, however, does not prevent us from doing stupid things.   Below, I discuss some of the stupidities intelligent leaders succumb to.

Confirmation Bias

According to Wikipedia:

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.

With confirmation bias, once we have latched onto a belief or opinion it takes a lot of mental work to change that belief or opinion.  It is mentally less taxing to just re-interpret new data to reinforce what we already believe than to use the new data to evolve or change our belief. And that is what we all do. 

All of us!

Research shows that confirmation bias is unrelated to intelligence and cognitive ability.  The strongest relationship between confirmation bias and intelligence is that the smarter we are, the better that we become in justifying our views and “proving” that we are acting rationally and without confirmation bias, even when we are under the spell of confirmation bias.

Curse of Knowledge

As leaders, we know a lot and we have usually studied and learned a lot.  With all the knowledge that we have gained, we often find it difficult to imagine what it is like for someone else to not know what we know.  This is the curse of knowledge.  Because we know something, it is obvious to us even if it is not obvious to the person trying to learn it. 

This curse of knowledge causes leaders to do stupid things in several ways.  First, we just assume someone else knows all that we know.  This causes problems when decisions are made by others who don’t know or don’t understand a key fact or concept.  Second, smart leaders get impatient with others who struggle to learn something that is obvious to the leader.  Third, the curse of knowledge leads to over-confidence and complacency; we know so much that we don’t need to learn any more.  As the academic and author Adam Grant writes:

The curse of knowledge is that is closes our minds to what we don’t know.


Smart people and smart leaders are good at understanding complexity, and often they love complexity.  There is often nothing so satisfying and ego-gratifying as deciphering and interpreting an advanced and sophisticated idea. We see this with most government, academic, and consulting reports.   But this complexity comes with a cost.  Not everyone understands the complex argument, especially those people (think: production, operations, and service workers) who actually do the work to implement the idea.  The problem with complexity is only getting worse as the writer Jonah Goldberg asserts:

The upper class in this country is making the rules of the game more complex.  And the problem can be simply stated: Complexity is a subsidy.  The more complex government makes society, the more it rewards those with the resources to deal with that complexity, and the more it punishes those who do not. 

Having All the Answers

Intelligent leaders are often impatient leaders; they have the answers, and they want to make it happen now.  Unfortunately, by having (and stating) all the answers, intelligent leaders can turn their business cultures into the “genius with a thousand helpers.” 

A good leader asks more questions, even questions that he or she already knows the answers to.  By listening to the answers to the question, this leader learns whether the other person understands the issue, and it gives the other person a deeper stake in the answer to the question.


What is the antidote to the four stupidities listed above?

  1. Involve others in key decision and policy making, especially those people who will do the work
  2. Keep it simple.  Complex language and complex ideas just confuse people and just prove that we do not understand it well enough to make it simple.

“What things have you been over-complicating?  What are the top three things you need to simplify for your team to succeed?” Paul Akers


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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