The Dumbest Person In The Room

The Dumbest Person In The Room

Good leaders surround themselves with experts, those smarter than themselves, and instead rely on their ability to listen, delegate and inspire.

By David Todd McCarty | Sunday, August 16, 2020

Successful CEO’s will tell you that they most often aspire to be the dumbest person in the room as this gives them the best chance to excel. It’s the social equivalent of owning the shittiest house on the block and allowing the nicer homes to increase the value of your own investment.

The most awesome power—almost incomprehensibly so—that the President of the United States has in their remarkable arsenal of weapons, is not the authority to command the most formidable military force in the history of the planet, but the staggering access to human knowledge they have at their fingertips.

With a phone call, they can talk to the foremost expert in the world on any topic imaginable, any time of day or night, and feel secure they are talking to someone who knows more about the subject than they ever will. The President also has enormous intelligence gathering capabilities that involve not only the nation’s top secrets, but those of both enemies and allies alike. In essence, there is very little that is known to human kind, at any given moment in time, that the President cannot know, if they feel it is important to them. That is an incredible, breathtaking power bordering on the divine; to understand the minds of men, and the inner workings of government, business, science and the economy, and act accordingly.

There is a scene in the movie U-571 about a World War II submarine crew, in which Chief Klough, played by Harvey Keitel, is talking to Lieutenant Tyler, played by Matthew McConaughey. Lt. Tyler has just found himself the newly minted Skipper after his Commander’s untimely death. It’s a come to Jesus moment in the movie and turning point for his character.

“This here’s the Navy,” Klough explains quietly, in a private moment between the two. “Where a Commanding Officer is a mighty and terrible thing. A man to be feared and respected. All knowing. All powerful.” 

But then comes the lesson, “Don’t you dare say what you said to the boys back there again, ‘I don’t know.’ Those three words will kill a crew, dead as a depth charge. You’re the Skipper now, and the Skipper always knows what to do, whether he does or not.”

U-571 Movie Poster

Americans are used to having leaders who have all the answers, or at least pretend to. We like experts and self-confident professionals who know what they’re doing and will tell us what we’re going to do. This is great in a movie, and why so many Americans are such poor leaders. Confidence alone doesn’t make for good leaders, anymore than it makes for good fighters. Confidence, or worse, overconfidence can also get you killed.

False bravado can be critical in the heat of a battle, where there is no time for hesitation, and no room to question orders. Sometimes you need someone who can act brave when that is all there is left to do. But everything is not a firefight, and for the most part, our leaders have the luxury of consulting with those who know more than they do, about a whole host of things. It’s lunacy to ignore their advice.

The smartest person in the room, understands the sheer volume of what they do not know about a situation, and can become paralyzed by it. For someone to be a good leader, it’s often best if they are not the expert, because the expert has their own biases concerning what they think they know or do not know. They can themselves be plagued by doubts over the sheer volume of variables at play. But what they can do, is offer their best understanding and insight to the current problem at hand.

A good leader balances all that intel, and makes an informed decision. They don’t have to be the expert in the room on any given subject. They have to be the one who understands that in order to make good decisions, you need people who know more than you do, to give you intel you can trust. You don’t need all the info, just enough to make a decision at that moment, about that one thing. 

That is a gift. That is a skill. It takes a high level of intelligence to understand what you don’t know. No one knows everything, and even smartest person in the room knows that, so they rely on experts to tell them what they don’t have time to discover on their own. They are asking someone to take 20, 30, or even 40 years of knowledge and study and distill it down to two minutes so they can make a decision in five.

There is nothing more dangerous than a leader who thinks they themselves are the smartest person in the room. The Dunning-Kruger effect ensures that only those too ignorant to know the depths of their own ignorance, would be so bold as to assume they know more than someone who has spent a lifetime studying an issue, or the life experience to draw upon. 

Obviously our current President is without this skill, or even the aptitude to understand what he does not know, and so he dismisses expert opinion, institutional knowledge, scientific research and scholarly work. He believes anything worth knowing, he can surmise by emotional connection, even though he seems incapable of empathy or understanding.

The litany of reasons Donald Trump is ill-suited for the job he holds has been well documented, so there is no need to get into it here. The issue is not how has he failed us, but what kind of person do we want to replace him?

In times of crisis, we often want an expert to guide us. It’s why so many have looked to Dr. Fauci during the pandemic, rather than the President, for guidance. It’s also why choosing a technocrat might not have been be the best move for us either. We don’t want the expert to lead us, we want the type of leader who is willing to call on the expert to tell us what we need to know, then lead us by example.

As much as you may like the policies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and as much as we appreciate their arcane knowledge of governmental policy or the corruption of Wall Street and corporate America, we don’t need an expert to lead us right now, we just need a leader who trusts and listens to experts. We need leaders who can be influenced beyond their own biases, who are willing to change their minds when the facts and the situation warrants it. We need a leader who is willing to listen, not one who will instruct.

Now that mystery is over concerning the VP choice, it’s time to move on electing Joe Biden to be the 46th President of the United States. Mike Pence means no more to the direction of the country than Eric Trump does, so it’s not worth spending a lot of time worrying about Kamala Harris’s role right now. She’s there to campaign for and support Joe Biden, and hopefully, in four years, we will then elect the first Black woman President, who will also have learned the critical value of listening to experts. She has plenty of time to become the leader we will soon need.

What we don’t need is a President who boasts of his own meager accomplishments, ridicules his political opponents, denigrates our allies, and makes policy decisions based on how they might inflate his own fragile ego. We need someone secure enough in their own knowledge that they can put the needs of others before their own. We need someone willing to make sacrifices in the service of the greater good.

Even in the example of the movie, Lt. Tyler was smart enough to be schooled by the Chief, a man who was not an officer, but who clearly understand command better than the skipper did.

The Presidency was never designed to be a monarchy. It was designed to be a temp job, a service position for someone of high moral character, that could be counted on to put the good of the country first, and their own desires a distant second.

We need a President who is secure enough in their own power, to be the dumbest person in the room, and to truly understand how truly smart that makes them.

Follow David Todd McCarty on Twitter @davidtmccarty and The Standard @capemaystandard

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