Four Classic Challenges for Smart CEOs

24. marts 2017

Ledernes KompetenceCenter is a partner of Thinkers50 European Business Forum, which brings together some of the best thinkers and CEOs in the world. Some of theese great business thinkers have written recommendations for CEOs, in an essay series called "Letters to the CEOs". As a partner, we get to publish theese letters for your enjoyment.

By Marshall Goldsmith


Dear CEO

In my role as an executive coach, I have had the opportunity to work with over 150 major CEOs.  As a group they would score well above the norm on any standard definition of intellectual intelligence (I am not referring to ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘artistic intelligence’ or other forms of intelligence).

While we often consider the blessings that come with a high IQ, we seldom think of the challenges that come with extreme intelligence.  In this article, I will discuss four classic challenges faced by smart CEOs – that are even more common among the ‘super-smart’.


1. Proving How Smart We Are

For ten years I had the privilege of being on the Board of the Peter Drucker Foundation.  This gave me the opportunity to spend over 50 days with the man who was (to me) the greatest management thinker who ever lived.

“Our mission in life is to make a positive difference – not to prove how smart we are.”

Peter Drucker

It is amazing how many leaders fail to grasp this basic lesson.

One of the ‘super smart’ leaders that I coached had two simultaneous Doctorates from one of the most challenging schools in the world, one in science and one in the humanities - with honors - in five years! 

The first time I interviewed him I took copious notes.  After an hour I said, “Dr. Smith, let me read to you the six times in the past hour that you have told me how smart you really were.”

As I read back his verbatim comments, he was embarrassed.  “What an ass!” he said of himself.

I replied, “You are not an ass.  You just have an incredibly high need to prove how smart you are.  Perhaps in the future you can cut back on this a little.”

I’ve given this same advice to lots of smart CEOs!



One night I had dinner with a top four-star General from the US Army.  We were surrounded by other 2-4 star Generals.  The General asked me an interesting question, “Marshall, who is your favorite customer?”

I replied, “Sir, my favorite customer is smart, dedicated, driven to achieve, has incredible integrity, gets results – and is a stubborn, opinionated know-it-all who never wants to admit he or she is wrong.”

I looked around the room and asked, “Do you think any of the Generals in this very room may fit such a description?”

He laughed and replied, “Marshall, we have a target-rich opportunity!”

It is incredibly difficult for super-smart people to hear something that they disagree with without proving the other person is wrong. After all, if others disagree with us, we assume, because we are so smart, they must be wrong.  The higher we move up in leadership the more destructive this habit can become.



It is incredibly difficult for smart people to listen to someone tell us something that we already know without pointing out, “I already know that.”

Imagine that you are my boss.  I am young, dedicated and enthusiastic.  I come to you with an idea.  You think it is a great idea.

Rather than just saying, “Great idea!” which gives credit to the other person, our tendency is to say, “That is a great idea, I already knew that!” which gives credit to ourselves.

Next time, just say, “Great idea!”



Joe, one of the ‘super-smart’ leaders that I have coached, had one of the classic challenges faced by the ‘super-smart’.

One day, I watched as he led his team meeting.  One of his direct reports was clearly having problems meeting goals.

Joe became very frustrated, “Can’t you see how X would help you solve your problem?  It seems obvious to me!” He then looked around the table and said, “I cannot believe that I am the ONLY person in the room who thought of X!  What were all of you thinking about?”

After the meeting, I explained to Joe that they were not the unusual ones – he was! Almost nobody in the world was as smart as he was. 

‘Super-smart’ people can often make connections and see patterns that are not obvious to normal people – or even ‘smart’ people.  In many cases the smarter we are, the more difficult this may be to understand.



One of the greatest leaders that I have ever met taught me a wonderful lesson, “For the great individual achiever, it is ‘all about me’.  For the great leader, it is ‘all about them’.”

It can be incredibly difficult, and yet it is highly possible, to make the transition from it is ‘all about me’ – proving I am smart, proving I am right, knowing all of the answers – to it is ‘all about them’ – proving they are right and being proud of them having the answers.

If you’re a super smart CEO, don’t spend your time proving how smart you are, be wise and spend your time helping other people be the heroes.

About Marshall Goldsmith

Marshall Goldsmith Marshall Goldsmith is one of the world's leadning executive coaches and author, most recently og Triggers (Crown, 2015). He is a Thinkers50 ranked thinker and winner of the 2015 Thinkers50 Leadership Award.