Effective Leadership: You Can’t Learn to Swim on the Beach!

If book smarts were enough to be a CEO, any intelligent person could pull it off. However, there’s a difference between information (which you can get from a book) and knowledge. 

Though you see it more in the younger ages, informative incompetence (II) isn’t the domain of just young leaders. One of the smartest guys I know is a middle-aged CEO. He went to a couple of good schools and has an advanced degree. He can perform weighted average cost of capital (WACC) calculations in his head. He’s also a very incompetent leader. All that information he has about leading others — book smarts — has remained mostly theoretical, because he’s unwilling to turn it into knowledge. How? By getting out of his comfort zone, failing and admitting it rather than blaming “the situation.” By listening to others rather than just spouting information. He’s stuck in II mode, and his one successful short run in a small company has never been replicated and probably won’t. Leading is as much of a contact sport as an intellectual pursuit. 

The young person who ends up in a senior role because she’s smart may also suffer from II. But if emotionally intelligent, she’ll understand that information is most valuable when married with context — applying that information in real-life situations and observing results. She also knows that skills such as pattern recognition, framing issues, decision making without perfect information, and seeing failure as learning (not as a flaw) are all necessary to become knowledgeable, maybe even wise.

Time in the saddle helps, but only if you focus on learning. It’s OK to have II when you’re a young leader, as long as you admit it and take steps to become knowledgeable. If you don’t, you’ll either flame out or wake up one day as a 50-year-old executive who knows that he’s a fraud. (Others know too, but your positional authority over them and reluctance to accept feedback mean they won’t tell you.) 

By all means, go read some books, watch TED Talks, get your MBA. However, having information about leading without the right experience is no better than having a pamphlet about swimming while standing on the beach. Get in the water!


Todd Ordal helps CEOs and other senior executives, lead better, profit more and sleep soundly at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Contact Todd at todd@toddordal.com or 303-527-0417.

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