Cartoon of a man yelling into a mic with text "I'm A Smart Guy"

Avoiding Smart Guy Syndrome

Throughout my years coaching executives, I’ve noticed a common behavior that decredentials leaders: the need to illustrate they are the smartest person in the room. Trust me, the moment you start doing that, you’ve lost:

  • the climate to foster meaningful, honest dialogue
  • the possibility of debate that’s essential to gaining insight and coming to the BEST decision, not you’re decision
  • the freedom to discover a solution with others
  • your direct reports’ trust in you as someone who cares about them and their input

That’s a lot to give up, right?

Four Behaviors to Avoid the “Smart Guy” Syndrome

Being aware of your need to establish yourself as the “smart guy” and knowing what you’re giving up as described above is just the beginning. From there, try these four behaviors that will help you avoid losing the confidence and trust of those in the room:

Never Rush-to-Judgement

Immediately judging input and the person giving it as “good” or “bad,” “worthy” or “not worthy” will create tension in the room. The moment you do this you shut the space of discovery down. You’re actually saying, I don’t need your input, I’ve got this. You will no longer get honest input, rather you will get what they think you want to hear.

Tell the Truth

If you’re afraid to tell the truth, you can’t lead. Of course, there are issues you should not discuss or open up about, you’ve got to be responsible for all the issues. Most issues are better communicated with honesty than with fabrication. And being able to admit you don’t have all the answers will engender loyalty far more than creating solutions out of thin air.


I can’t stress this enough. The leader who listens is the leader who is respected. Let conversations remain ambiguous for a while and notice who participates in the solution of the issue, beyond you; that’s a future leader.

Offer honest consistent feedback

The clearer your observations are of people the more they will desire your coaching of them. They will feel your concern for their development, rather than your isolated positions. People want feedback so they can improve how they operate. Not giving them feedback says either you didn’t listen, didn’t care, or don’t have the respect for their input. That’s not going to win you many fans, is it?

Try these four behaviors at your next meeting. Let me know how it goes with a “Reply” below so we can all learn from your experience!  

– SG