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The dumbest person in the room

Our society encourages people to become leaders. It glamorizes how cool it is to be the person in charge, implying that with that responsibility one will instinctively know what needs to be done. Unfortunately, we frequently do not provide people who are thrust into leadership positions enough advanced training and guidance to help them succeed as leaders.

One of the most common mistakes I witness is either when an associate tells me they need a specific title in order to be able to lead their people, or someone who has that specific title can’t figure out why they are ineffective with their people when, after all, they are the boss. These comments convey that they think that effective leadership is bestowed, that a title works like a magic wand for the would-be leaders to wave around to get things done. Anyone who has truly led teams knows this is not true.

Ask anyone who has ever worked with me, and they would probably tell you that, at times, I acted like I was everyone’s boss, and, at other times, I acted like everyone was my boss. How was that possible? When dealing with people who did not report to me, it was through the use of implied authority. When I wanted to get projects or initiatives accomplished, I engaged these people and showed an interest in making them successful in their jobs. I also actively sought out their advice, while also showing full confidence in my ideas. By projecting that my idea was something that was most likely going to move forward, but by also asking for people’s input, it made them feel valued, that their opinions and ideas counted. Conversely, when people came to me with ideas, I would not act like I was the final decision-maker; rather, I tried to help out and contribute to their project, just as others had done with mine. So, what has changed now that I am in a position where the authority is no longer implied but is actually given to me? Hopefully nothing. I still want my people to feel like they have a voice—that I actually listen to what they have to say.

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The real challenge for leaders is to make sure they surround themselves with people who will speak up and state their opinions. We all know the Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” You do not want to be confidently presenting a new idea to your company or the public, which, due to no one’s willingness to tell you it’s awful, puts you in the position of being as naked as the emperor in the story. A good team will tell you when you are barking up a wrong tree or when you are missing the obvious. Sometimes the most obvious answer was staring you in the face all along.

For instance, we had a market in which we were losing money with a big flagship store. Years ago, it had been a large operation, but the market’s turning bad and some past management decisions had the operation posting some pretty large losses. Meanwhile, about 15 miles away was a small store that had been around forever and made a little money. The assumption was that once that team at that store retired, we would merge it into the larger store. Well, we put lots of money and ideas into the larger store, but the market got worse and the results with them. To make matters worse, our egos would not let us throw in the towel.

One day, out of the blue, one of the members of my team suggested we merge the business that made sense into the smaller store and close the larger property. It made sense on so many levels because the market did not look like it was going to significantly improve in the short term; the smaller store, while already profitable, could handle more business; and the business that we would move did not care where their product shipped from. We made the move, and things were significantly better than they had been than when we had the large store. And all this came about because someone was willing to throw out an out-of-the- box idea without fear of repercussions because they knew their opinion was valued.

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There is an old saying that if you are in a room full of people and you can’t figure out which person is the dumbest person in the room, then it might be you. If you are going to effectively lead a team, you need to be constantly vigilant in making sure that when you are the dumbest person in the room, you do something about it. Usually, it just means shutting your mouth and listening to your team.

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