How to Eliminate the “F” Word From Your Leadership

I don’t often find myself with a lot of time to watch television, but when I do here is the ritual I go through:

  1. Sit in my comfortable easy chair.
  2. Turn television on.
  3. Press “Guide” button on my Direct TV remote.
  4. Punch in the numbers 247, which is TBS.

All of this to see if my favorite show of all time is playing, The Big Bang Theory!

I have fallen in love with The Big Bang Theory. If you don’t know the story line, the characters are all really smart Ph.D types (except Howard, his educational pedigree is that of a lowly astronaut engineer type), whose relationships are all tested primarily by Sheldon Cooper’s regimented and deeply eccentric personality. Sheldon, along with his best friend and roommate, Leonard Hofstadter (for whom there is a written roommate agreement), may be able to easily explain complex issues in physics like quantum string theory, however, basic social situations (especially when it comes to women) confound and elude them.

Man with a cloud instead of his head

Smart Vs. Wise

The Big Bang Theory constantly reminds me that an individual may be smart, but that doesn't always mean they are wise.

I don’t often foray into the political arena in this blog. However, as I watch the political scene unfold in the US, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that the candidates keep trying to portray their level of intelligence. What we need in this country is wisdom along with intellect.

Donald Trump, who claims to have huge intellect (which should be questioned, because wealth is not an indicator of how intelligent someone is), cannot seem to get out of his own way in the legal case involving Trump University.

As a graduate of Yale Law School, I have a hard time questioning Hilary Clinton’s intellect. Although, similar criticism can be given to Clinton in the handling of her private email server. I am sorry, Mrs. Clinton, but the “not knowing” defense as Secretary of State of the United States of America is unfathomable.

When smart people make such huge public blunders, what is actually happening?

Dr. Richard Sternberg draws the conclusion his book A Handbook of Wisdom, that the opposite of smart is stupid, and the opposite of wisdom is foolishness.

The question we often ask of leaders who knew better than to act the way they did is, “How could such a smart person be so stupid?” This question really doesn’t capture the essence of the action.

Donald, how could you be so stupid to ignite racial tension to protect your personal brand?

Hilary, how could you be so stupid to blatantly ignore rules and laws you had working knowledge of?

But according to Dr. Sternberg’s assessment, the candidates are not stupid, they've acted foolishly.

Foolish acts by smart people are not because they lack intellect. The problem with the foolishness has little to do with their cerebral processing, but more to do with deeper issues of character.

While it is easy to get lost in the fictional story of television or the laissez-faire attitude of the American politician, the fact is, we observe really smart people doing really foolish things all the time.

Defining Foolishness

If as a leader you are going to remove the “F” word, then knowing what foolishness looks like might be of value. The leadership literature (thanks to Dr. Sternberg) has identified five different dimensions of foolishness:

  • What-me-worry? (unrealistic optimism) - I am so smart and/or powerful it is pointless to worry about outcomes.
  • Egocentrism - The interests of the leader are the only ones that are relevant.
  • Omniscience - Thinking the leader knows or has access to perfect knowledge.
  • Omnipotence - Over-extension of granted power by followers.
  • Invulnerability - Complete protection from error or mistake.

If we go back to our candidates for President and examine their actions in light of a foolishness metric, what do you think? Perhaps Mr. Trump suffers from Unrealistic Optimism and Egocentrism, while Mrs. Clinton from Omnipotence and Invulnerability. It would be a totally different campaign if these two candidates recognized these behaviors in themselves and focused on changing them.

Taking the “F” Word Out of Your Leadership

Foolishness is something to be guarded against by all leaders. It has been suggested that the reason leaders commit foolish acts is rooted in how humans see reality. For this, we must examine a couple of different models for how we, as humans, process reality.

True is True and False is False: Some leaders have an ability when they hear true information, the information is accepted as such, and when false information is heard, it is rejected. In this model, the mind of the leader acts in a linear fashion to establish true from false or rational from irrational.

An Extra Step: Another view is that our minds are actually in a state to automatically accept what we hear as true. Yet there is an extra step involved to reject something as not true.

This process of rejection literally takes more energy from us than automatic rejection. It is argued by Dan Gilbert that people may indeed hear something that is untrue or irrational and have the capacity to reject it, but fail to take the actual step of rejecting the untruth.

We have all experienced this, especially when we are emotionally vulnerable, or even physically or mentally exhausted. We know something isn’t true, but we just don’t have the energy to debate it (anyone ever raised a teenager?).

Taking the "F" Word Out of Your Followership

What about the American public? Why do we constantly let our politicians get away with such behaviors? How about we stop blaming the “liberal press” or “Fox News” and put the foolishness meter on ourselves!? Perhaps it is time to stop aligning with individual parties and to start examining the character of the leaders we are electing. Perhaps we need to remove the “F”word from our followership as well. Perhaps we need to put a little more energy into the process, rather than shake our heads and tell ourselves we don’t have enough energy to even think about it.


Which of the five foolishness dimensions are you at risk for succumbing to as a leader? Why not ask those on your team to give you an evaluation to see if they have ever observed any of these in your leadership.