Smart Can Be Stupid

I’ve written a number of times on the subject of hiring smart people.

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Raw intelligence and a natural curiosity about the world are two qualities I’ve found to be universal in the great executives I know and I always spent a lot of time when I was interviewing new hires trying to uncover those qualities in the candidates.  As I thought about the search for that brilliance the other day I realized that it’s just not enough.  No, I’m not retracting my statement.  I do think, however, I’m doing you folks a disservice by not providing context.  Let me do so now.

Suppose you knew a really smart ten year-old.  He is constantly asking questions about the world and more often than not can hold his own in a discussion with adults.  His logic is impeccable; his ability to express himself is superb.  Would you hire him?  Of course not (although you might tee him up for an internship in five or six years).  While he has two of the skills one can’t teach, he lacks many critical skills for success.  Emotional maturity is probably first on that list; the ability to contextualize (or not) is the other.

What do I mean by that?  When we get too caught up in a moment we need to have the ability to stop, take a step back, and see the forest as well as the trees.    That’s contextualizing. Math teachers would explain it as probing into the referents for the symbols involved – I like that.  Great businesspeople can also do the opposite – decontextualize – maybe even at the same time.  That’s the ability to abstract a situation and think about it symbolically without all the immediate pressures of what’s going on.  These abilities – as well as other critical thinking skills – take time and experience.  It’s why older executives such as me have value that our younger peers don’t: we’ve made the mistakes already and have learned.

Smart people can be stupid.  They need experience, a grounding in facts,  and the emotional maturity that comes with time to be successful in business.  We all know the brilliant jerk – the very smart executive who everyone respects and very few like.  They can crush a company. Our challenge is to find the qualities in addition to smart and curious that make for greatness.  You up to it?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

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