In a meeting last month with a group of really smart, talented leaders, I watched one of the smartest of the bunch make a rather common, dangerous choice. Rather than being open to an idea, this Senior VP’s immediate reaction to it was to say, “There’s no way that could work.” Even when presented with concrete examples of how the idea worked quite well for similar companies, her stance didn’t change. Was she wrong? Not necessarily, however, this knee-jerk response is what keeps some of the brightest leaders from employing ideas that could create incredible, positive outcomes.
Smart Leadership isn’t about intellect, talent, or even experience. In fact, the more of each someone has, the more likely they won’t engage in Smart Leadership at least some of the time. Smart Leadership requires we acknowledge how much we don’t know and how our experiences can prompt us to be dismissive. How we apply our knowledge and experience is what really determines just how clever we are at the end of the day.
The Senior VP in this example was willing to admit that she was jumping to conclusions. “My first thought was that the outcome, as described, wasn’t possible. That must be because I’ve never had an experience of that working.”
Her comments illustrate the problem. Our brains take what’s being said or demonstrated and immediately compares that to our mental file of experiences. In a split second, we come to judgement as to whether or not something is a good idea, based solely on this comparison. This very human reaction is the important moment that separates the smart leaders from the stuck leaders, with the savvy ones living the following mantra:
“I’m not responsible for my first thought; I am responsible for my next action.”
Jumping to conclusions, the first thought, only hampers leaders when they take action based solely upon that reaction. Brilliant leadership occurs when people slow down, and take time to validate or refute their own thinking, asking questions such as:
- How do I know that?
- What proof do I have?
- How can I determine if this will work in our situation?
The Senior VP took responsibility for her first thought, slowed down, and asked these critical questions (her next action), determining that her initial dismissiveness was unfounded. A month later, her firm has not only implemented the idea she initially dismissed, they are now experiencing positive results beyond what she could have imagined. “Thankfully, I took time to slow down and do what was right. Which, in this case, was to challenge my own thinking.”
Some of the smartest leaders aren’t people with high IQ’s, advanced degrees, or decades of experience. They are incredibly human and know what being smart really means, which includes knowing and managing themselves effectively.
This Week’s Radical Accountability Activating Action: Notice your first thought, especially when you rush to judgement. Then, employ the next right action of validating or refuting that thinking.
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