There is a saying that if you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room. But there is likely a smart person who is knowledgeable about something in every room. Should they all leave?
Looking for people who are smarter than you is a good way to learn. At the same time you should be giving back to your networks and communities. Leadership, especially in networks, is helping others get smarter. It is also helping others make better decisions. The personal knowledge mastery model (PKM) is comprised of three interrelated activities: Seek > Sense > Share. Good leaders not only learn, but share their knowledge at the right time and place. As Kenneth Mikkelsen and I wrote in our HBR article: the best leaders are constant learners, and sharers. By seeking, sensing, and sharing, everyone in an organization can become part of a learning organism, listening at different frequencies, scanning the horizon, recognizing patterns and making better decisions on an informed basis.
Think about what would happen if the smartest people in every room did not share their knowledge. PKM is our individual contribution to the social learning contract, so our society can get smarter over time and make better decisions. Hoarding our knowledge hurts all of us in the long run. Leadership is an emergent property of a network in balance. Depending on one person to always be the leader only dumbs-down the entire network. We can help each other become better leaders by setting an example of constant learning and sharing.
For example, trying to directly shape behaviour through formal training can work when the task to be done is straight-forward, time is of the essence, and the learner is ready. For complex behaviours like leadership, consisting of several skills, modelling (not shaping) is best, as there is much implicit knowledge to be learned which takes time. With connected leadership, people must be both teachers and learners. Therefore neither training programs, nor even coaching, are enough. Leadership by example through experience becomes the key.
One example of this type of emergent leadership was the Apache nation that had only situational leaders, Nantans, who were in charge as long as warriors were willing to follow them. Because of this decentralization, they were able to fight the Spanish for over two hundred years, regrouping as necessary. A similar approach can be developed for today’s networked organizations.
Tomorrow’s leaders will be found among an aggressively engaged citizenry, using technology to augment their senses and connected to people in meaningful and respected relationships. So if you find yourself as the smartest person in the room, then help make the room smarter.