"Make sure your worst enemy doesn't live between your own two ears." ~Laird Hamilton


History is riddled with examples of once successful companies and organizations who made some critical mistakes and now cease to exist. Were their leaders stupid? Doubtful, especially considering the success they had attained prior to the failure. No, they likely fell into the trap of having a strength turn into a weakness, of being so smart they were stupid. We’ll explore this concept below.

Being smart would seem to be something that everyone aspires to (and most likely do), but while the upside of being smart is huge, as with every great thing there can be a downside if you aren’t on your guard against it.

In almost every case of smart people failing, they fell into the downside of intelligence and that is overconfidence and ego. Those two traits are what great leaders, and smart leaders, guard against regularly.

Now some may correctly mention that people who are overconfident and under the influence of their ego rarely notice or acknowledge the fact. Luckily there are some common ways that this downside of intelligence manifests itself. Smart people that are running the risk of failure demonstrate one or many of these attributes:

They think they’re the smartest person in the room – Now this may actually be the case, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things to be learned from others. Perspective and experience are gained through hands-on action and nobody can have the same actions and experiences as everyone in the room. The smart person can fall into the trap of feeling like they have better answers than everyone else in the room and ignore the expertise that everyone brings to the table, and when that happens they stop learning.

Remedy: Acknowledge that everyone in the room has a strength and a perspective that is superior to yours in some way. Use those to gain even more insight and wisdom surrounding the issue at hand. It may take more time and effort to elicit, listen to and process, but as John Wooden said "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, you need a team."

They fall in love with their old ideas – Just because they thought of it and it was a success never guarantees it will continue. Think about Kodak, Nokia, and Newspapers. Smart people often marvel at just how smart they were and forget to focus on how smart they are and need to be. The only thing guaranteed is change. Falling in love with your idea is sure to leave you obsolete the longer you hold onto it.

Remedy: Realize that great ideas and successes have a shelf life. The longer they are in place the more likely they need to be addressed. Like nature, those unresponsive to change go extinct. As Jack Welch said, "Success is less a function of grandiose predictions than it is a result of being able to respond rapidly to changes as they occur."

They quit when they fail – Because smart people are so used to winning and succeeding at what they do, they aren’t prepared to deal with failure in a productive way. Oftentimes, when something doesn’t work for them right they will assume it is “impossible” and disregard the goal entirely. In the worst of cases they will take actions that sabotage it in the future, a kind of “If I can’t do it nobody will” attitude.

Remedy: Realize that persistence is required for all great actions. Work beats talent when talent doesn’t work. Look to Edison and the 10,000 variations of the lightbulb before he got it right for an example of genius needing persistence in failure. Or look to what the paragon of intelligence, Albert Einstein, said, "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer."

They try to bully their way past challenges – Smart people almost always achieve some level of success, but that success can blind them to the uniqueness of the challenge in front of them. Often they will charge forward into a challenge without giving proper thought and preparation on how they are going to address it. This often leads to a lengthier process to resolution as well as some starts and stops as they discover the details surrounding what they are working on.

Remedy: Realize that every challenge is unique and there are degrees of success. It is good to come up with a process of defining and solving challenges where assumptions can be reviewed and possible solutions are explored thoroughly to avoid mismatching solutions to problems. As Bill Gates once said, "Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose.”

They use the wrong abilities at the wrong times - I get it, when you’re great at something you want to keep doing it and using it. This happens a lot in organizations where Marketing want to solve all problems with more marketing, or the Sales team thinks that they just need to sell differently. A smart person wants to stay smart, so they try to play to their strengths regardless of whether that’s the right fit for the task at hand. This leads to poorer products, lengthier project times, and sometimes failure.

Remedy: Look to all of the talents and resources of the organization. The more talent you leverage the better the product, service or solution will be in the end. Don’t fall into the thinking that Abraham Maslow identified when he said, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail."

They don’t understand how to get help – Smart people often identify as being smart, this makes them embarrassed when they can’t be self-reliant. This leads to them getting into situations where they should be asking for help and assistance, but don’t because of their pride.

Remedy: There will be plenty of times when you need the assistance of others. The smarter those are around you the smarter you can be. And truly smart people keep the end goal in mind and align resources for themselves to reach those goals. Don’t forget what Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "I'm not the smartest fellow in the world, but I can sure pick smart colleagues." ~Franklin D. Roosevelt  

They think too much and act too little – In an effort to show off, the smart person will often spend extra time thinking in order to ensure there are no mistakes or to add more to the solution they are coming up with. This is similar to Project Scope Creep, where functionality and features keep getting added along the way and keep pushing out the timeline for completion. Striving for perfection in everything can stall all progress if left unchecked.

Remedy: Action and results are what matter more than anything. Yes, you want to take a requisite amount of time so that you are acting thoughtfully and not recklessly, but you need to have a bias towards action. As Pablo Picasso said, “Action is the foundational key to all success."

A truly smart person turns that intellect inward from time to time to put their own behavior under the microscope. From this reflection comes better application of their intelligence and better results. If they never go through this exercise of self-reflection they may find themselves prone to the mistakes outlined above and inviting failure.