What’s up with know-it-all leaders?

Did I hear that right? The President of a company making a big play for nationwide retail actually told a potential executive “we don’t really need you — hiring you into our team will simply speed things up for us.” I often hear of know-it-all leaders and CEOs who say or believe things like this, but my jaw hit the floor when I heard it myself.

After speaking with him at length, it became clear he viewed employees as simply this: additional hands on deck to get his tasks done. In his mind, leaders set goals and workers execute plans. Period. He didn’t acknowledge their knowledge. He didn’t value the experience they brought to the table or consider what he lacked. Employees were worker bees that could carry out his vision and tasks. While it’s true employees are meant to execute on the leader’s vision, that’s only half the equation. They also provide the intelligence and skill the leader doesn’t (and can’t) have.

Know-it-all leaders aren’t bad people. In fact, this particular gentleman is a kind person that treats people with dignity and respect. He cares deeply about his community. But when it comes to understanding people’s business value, he demonstrated a major blind spot. He subscribed to a few common delusions know-it-all leaders have.

First, he believed a leader is required to know everything. Second, he believed that employees don’t bring a unique skill or natural ability, only acquired knowledge that can easily be learned by others. He’s wrong on both counts.

Why Know-It-All Leaders Exist

The pressure on the know-it-all leader is real. They believe they were hired because they demonstrated more knowledge or experience than the other candidates for the job. Because of this, maintaining that value depends on them knowing more than everyone else. If they fail in this, they fear getting replaced by someone else who knows more than they do. This is why know-it-all leaders don’t open-up regarding what they don’t know. This is why know-it-all leaders take new ideas as a challenge to their authority. If someone has a better idea than them, they are a failure.

The reality, of course, is that the most significant leaders on planet earth drive amazing companies because they are fully aware they don’t know everything and actively cast characters into their script who know more than they do. They also seek out others that will challenge them and their thinking. To have an employee contradict or challenge you without getting upset requires a lot of self-respect and confidence, however. It’s much easier said (or typed) than done.

Not All Talent Can Be Acquired

Know-It-All leaders also have a major blind spot when it comes to acquired knowledge. They have a deeply held belief that employees simply bring knowledge that any person can acquire over a given period. They fail to see that people are naturally good at certain tasks, instead, choosing to believe experience determines skill. If they genuinely listened to their teams, they would see that individuals have strengths baked into their DNA, but they don’t listen because they have a deeply rooted belief that everyone is like them, and simply don’t have the experience they have.

A research project in the 1950s showed that time spent refining natural skill goes farther than time spent on unnatural skills. The study looked at speed reading among high school sophomores. Obviously, it found that practice boosted students’ words-per-minute reading rate, but those who started out reading 300 words per minute at the beginning of the study made faster progress, resulting in 2,900 words per minute more than everyone else. All of the students’ speed improved, but practice helped the naturally skilled improve the most.

The root of the problem, of course, is that know-it-all leaders don’t view others as having natural skill, because they don’t believe they have natural skill either. They’re wrong of course, which is why resources like Clifton Strengths created by Don Clifton and platforms like SOAR.com, created by Paul Allen founder of Ancestry.com were crafted to decode the talent labyrinth.


The faster leaders, bosses, and founders come to the understanding they need people with skills they lack, the better off they’ll be. Adding employees doesn’t only speed up company growth; it provides much-needed skills leaders do not have. Skills that prevent their demise. Humoursoly, if know-it-all leaders got whey they truly wanted in cloning themselves, it would merely speed up their failure.

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