Even Smart Leaders Can Make Stupid Choices - 5039 - GROW GREAT PODCAST with Randy Cantrell

Even Smart Leaders Can Make Stupid Choices – 5039

Even Smart Leaders Can Make Stupid Choices - 5039 - GROW GREAT PODCAST with Randy Cantrell

Stupidity and foolishness know no bounds. They don’t respect any of us. 

The other day I was doing some computer work and the ID channel was on. It’s the channel crime mystery lovers watch. A show about the murder of a woman was on. Turns out her husband, an MIT educated guy with a Ph.D. did it. I caught enough of the program to tell it was one stupid decision after another that climaxed with him killing his wife. I was thinking what most of us always think when we hear such things, “How can a guy who is so smart be so stupid?”

Because we all have a tremendous capacity for stupidity and foolishness. Even the smartest and wisest leaders can make stupid choices. 

Many people appropriately admire the goodness or greatness of General George Patton. But quite often this brilliant general was known to jam his foot firmly into his mouth. Many leaders have allowed their ego (or something else) to override their senses. It happens. 

Last night CBS 60 Minutes’ Anderson Cooper interviewed Stormy Daniels, the porn star who claims to have been intimate with Donald Trump. Lots of discussions have ensued about leaders and U.S. Presidents who have been guilty of “indiscretions.” Indiscretions? Well, that’s being polite. Sort of like calling Ms. Daniels an “adult film” star is a polite way of saying she’s a porn star. President Kennedy wasn’t the first (and he did it while in office), nor will Trump be the last. Smart men behaving foolishly. 

I don’t care what your politics are. Or what color the state is where you live and work. It doesn’t matter to me. And notice I’ve not said anything about “great leaders.” That’s likely far more subjective than smart. Whether you loved Kennedy, Clinton or Trump. Or hated them. These (and many others) are inarguably smart guys who were able to achieve some success in life prior to being elected President, which requires a certain degree of smartness. 

Really smart people – smart leaders (people who are at the top of the food chain in an organization) – can be stupid and make really bad choices. Rather than throw rocks, what can we learn to help our own leadership? It’s a loaded question and there are likely as many reasons as there are people and situations, but let’s give it a go and try to learn some things.

Selfishness Trumps Them All

Pun intended. 

Every single act of foolishness and every stupid choice can likely be traced all the way back to selfishness. The leader was primarily (maybe only) thinking of himself. 

General Patton, like many other leaders, could blurt out things that others found appalling. In each case, he was thinking of what he wanted to express, or maybe spewing out thoughts he had been harboring for a long time. Sometimes it may have been an expression of frustration. No matter. It was about him.

From infidelity to immorality to murder, smart people and smart leaders can become so focused on themselves they lose sight of wisdom. Good judgment leaves them as they grow increasingly focused on what they want. 

I’m a baby boomer. I grew up knowing one thing about leadership. It’s service. The phrase “servant leadership,” is credited to Robert K. Greenleaf who wrote about it in 1970. Sorry, Bob, but you did not invent it. Jesus exemplified it. It’s as ancient as time itself. I thought it was the only kind of leadership worth exercising. For me, as a young leader (decades ago), it was THE way to lead. The other option was a dictatorship, which meant being an autocrat. And I’ve always hated autocracy. 

Patton loved his army and his men. Yet, in a self-centered moment, he could behave like a mad dictator. So can you. 

And in one fell swoop, you can undo years of good. 

Empathy Drives Us To Serve

Thinking of those entrusted to our leadership…making sure they’ve got what they need when they need it…helping each of them elevate their performance to achieve success together and individually. 

You can’t do that when you’re wrapped up thinking mostly about yourself. 

Smart leaders sometimes make stupid choices because they think it’s about them. And they don’t think about anybody else. It may be momentary. It may be who they are, autocratic jerks. Smarts don’t matter if you don’t properly deploy them…and as the leader, that’s your only job. To marshal resources (or acquire them) to serve your people so they can succeed. Cause you’ve got the authority to flatten their speed bumps. And to knock down the barriers that get in their way. 

Sometimes smart leaders are making stupid choices that make it harder for their people. It’s destructive. For the leader and the people. The minute you realize you’re being stupid, stop it. Own it. Apologize. Fix it. Move on.

I’m smart. But I’ve been stupid before. And I’ll be stupid again. But my business philosophy continues to be my north star.


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Grow Great a public sector leadership podcastAbout the hosts: Randy Cantrell brings over 4 decades of experience as a business leader and organization builder. Lisa Norris brings almost 3 decades of experience in HR and all things "people." Their shared passion for leadership and developing high-performing cultures provoked them to focus the Grow Great podcast on city government leadership.

The work is about achieving unprecedented success through accelerated learning in helping leaders and executives "figure it out." 

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