Let’s Face It, I’m Smarter Than You

thierry ehrmann

Some mindsets are toxic. If you propagate them, stop it. If your leader does it, weigh your options.

I write often on the light side of leadership. A few examples are here, here, and here. This one’s a bit dark. But, it’s real. Ask around.

“Let’s face it, I’m smarter than you.”

If any leader were to drop that phrase on you, you’d possibly recoil in horror and anger while looking for your hat and coat to depart. It is the sort of phrase that would be almost as hilarious to anyone hearing it uttered as it is spiteful and selfish in its utterance.

The issue is that a lot of leaders say this every day. They convey this and a whole host of other toxic thoughts through their actions. Sometimes, they don’t even know they do it.

The continuum of toxic leadership mindsets

I’ll list some of the host of toxic mindsets below (and I HOPE you will consider adding to them) because as a whole, they constitute quite possibly the single most distracting productivity sap of modern corporate life.

These mindsets are not individually toxic. Let’s be honest, all good leaders have these fleeting thoughts as a part of balancing the line between good, solid confidence and outright egotism. The issue is when these mindsets become the rule instead of the exception.

When they become endemic, they are destructive.

I’ve segmented them into six types, and given a few examples of the unspoken speech that comes with them. Ranging from mildly annoying (kinda jerky) to absolutely toxic (as in pure deal breakers–the kind of leader you walk away from at first possibility) the six types are:

Type 1: “My brain is bigger than yours.”

  • Let’s face it, I’m smarter than you
  • I could do this better than you.
  • I can interrupt you, but don’t you dare interrupt me.
  • My experience/knowledge/background is superior to yours.

Type 2: “I don’t want you to think.”

  • You will do what you are told.
  • This is not a team/democracy/collaboration.
  • That’s a stupid idea!
  • I’ve already given you the answer, don’t question it.

Type 3: “You don’t matter”

  • My freedom is more important than yours
  • My work is more important than you.
  • My family is more important than yours.
  • My stories are more interesting than yours.
  • I don’t believe in or sponsor people.

Type 4: “I don’t make mistakes.”

  • If it weren’t for you, we would have done better.
  • Because I have never failed, it must be you.
  • I have paid my dues and earned it (and you haven’t).
  • It was generous of me to do what I did for you.
  • I refuse to acknowledge that I might be wrong.

Type 5: “If it’s unethical, you did it.”

  • I’m happy for you to act unethically, as long as I don’t have to and can’t be blamed for it.
  • I would like for you to deceive other people and keep me safe.

Type 6: “I’m afraid.”

  • You do it.
  • You tell them (not me).
  • It’s not me, it’s you.

Notice how the progression goes from deep arrogance in Type 1 to deep insecurity in Type 6.

We all can deal with the jerkiness of ego from time to time. If we don’t, then we probably aren’t competing very hard. But, it gets excruciatingly hard to deal with an insecure or cowardly leader. That’s why type 6 is on the deal breaking end of the spectrum.

What to do…

The first point of this article is one of self reflection. We, especially those of us who lead others, have to ensure we’re not the ones representing these mindsets.

The second point is to provide some markers to look out for among the people you work for and with.

Generally, those markers are unspoken. But, if any of these mindsets ever turn into spoken word, then you’ve been given a gift–the gift of clarity. With your gift in hand, feel good about walking away.

When faced with a leader who possesses these sentiments at his or her heart; and who lacks the self awareness required to avoid expressing them; you really have two options:

1. Look past the leader to the other opportunities you will have in the organization. Many great people deal with ineffective or toxic leaders every day because they like their teams, like their organizations, and–most importantly–see the opportunity set that they have on the horizon past their current leader. In other words, they can look to the horizon and see past the stumbling block in their immediate path.


2. If you can’t see the opportunity for growth, and can get comfortable with the risk inherent to change…Go!!! Vote with your feet. Be confident that there are better leaders out there. Get away from them. Walk away, don’t look back, just leave.

A Parting Thought: Remember the Scorpion and the Frog

If you take pride in your ability to corral toxic leaders; or if you think that you are safe from a leader who professes the thoughts outlined above because you believe you have a special relationship with them…

or they sponsor you…

or you are somehow indispensable…

or they have told you that you are different…

…then I ask you this: Did the last few people this leader blamed for his or her own inadequacies think they were any less sponsored or safe?

Remember: In the fable of the scorpion and the frog

…they both drown.

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