“Smart” Leaders: The Omniscience Fallacy

What do you think is wrong with many of our leaders? In reading about Executive Wisdom (Richard R. Kilburg, 2007), one of the great errors in thinking committed by leaders is this:

The omniscience fallacy: believing one knows everything. (Sternberg, 2005)

Maybe you’ve worked for a boss who thinks he knows everything? Or you know someone who does, because this is rampant. It’s common practice for bosses to interrupt someone to tell them why their idea won’t work, or how they could make their idea better.

In Marshall Goldsmith’s book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, he lists 20 habits that are the top interpersonal challenges for leaders. One of the most common faults leaders have is in thinking they know it all. And, they have an overwhelming desire to let you know how smart they are.

When I review Goldsmith’s list of 20 bad habits, I find six of the 20 that stem from the fact that leaders think they know it all. In the work I do coaching some pretty smart executives, not many come to me because they think they don’t know enough. They’re all pretty accomplished and knowledgeable. But that’s the problem.

Once in positions of responsibility and power, everyone comes to them with questions and to ask for advice. The idea that they are all-knowing gets reinforced, and many executives start believing they actually do know what’s best. In a desire to keep up appearances, they stop asking questions.

Take for example, the question of motivating employees. Almost every economic model has assumed that money is the key motivator for employees. Bosses assume that if they pay their people top dollar, they’ll get top performance and loyalty in return. It ain’t so, but this way of thinking is rampant…

Even though management studies say this isn’t the way it works, most leaders continue to think of pay as the ultimate incentive. They think they know their employees and what they want. Here’s a passage from Goldsmith’s book that struck me as important:

As a general rule, people in their 20s want to learn on the job. In their 30s they want to advance. And in their 40s they want to rule. No matter what their age, though, understanding their desires is like trying to pin down mercury. You have to find out what they want at every step – by literally asking them – and you can’t assume that one size fits all. The person who sees the noble goal of “work-life balance” as irrelevant at age 24 may find it critical at age 34. (Goldsmith, p. 214)

Bosses think they know their people, but how can they know if they aren’t asking questions and having conversations? And it’s hard to have a two-way exchange of ideas when you’re the person in charge and you come across as if you know it all already.

What’s been your experience with “smart” leaders?

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