A smart leader's guide to idiots

Why intelligent people do stupid things (short version).

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 05 Dec 2019

Your leadership is largely defined by how you respond when things don’t go your way, particularly when the outcome is a) avoidable, and b) someone else’s fault.

In times gone by, the appropriate response for a self-respecting boss ranged from a bollocking to a sacking. Now, things are more nuanced. Failure is tolerated, indeed positively encouraged so long as people learn from it. The same can’t be said for idiocy.

What makes an idiot, and why am I surrounded by them? 

Idiocy in the pejorative sense isn’t a lack of intellect, but rather a failure to act in a way most people would see as sensibly. For our purposes, we can use it interchangeably with stupidity or foolishness.

A study by Balacz Aczel et al identified three "clusters of stupidity" that explained why people were perceived to do foolish things - absent-mindedness, lack of control (i.e. compulsive or addictive behaviour) and confident ignorance (essentially hubris). 

The first is essentially a mistake, while the second two are types of error, relating to flawed judgement. On the surface it appears to be an important distinction.

Everyone makes mistakes, after all, and while some people admittedly make more than others, well-run organisations have systems in place to prevent mistakes turning into disasters - financial control and corporate governance, for example. 

Errors of judgement seem less forgivable, but before you reach for the P45, consider that organisation culture and systems can also have a significant bearing on how likely errors are to occur, and how damaging they are when they do. 

High levels of stress, for example, have been shown to impair judgment, particularly around taking risks, while organisational monocultures, particularly those dominated by a powerful personality, are notoriously vulnerable to groupthink, where a whole group of smart people can convince themselves up is down or down is up. 

Even if you’ve got a smart culture and clever systems, you’re going to find people doing stupid things, but that still doesn’t necessarily mean they’re idiots. As Thomas Erikson argues in his new book Surrounded by Idiots, what you typically mistake for foolishness  is often in fact simply difference - because other people don’t think like you, you assume they’re stupid.

This can be profoundly damaging, as diverse thinking is precisely the antidote to the groupthink problem that often leads to errors in the first place.

If you’ve thought about all that carefully and concluded that your idiot problem is not a result of foolishness-by-organisational-design or simple misdiagnosis, and barring for the moment the not-unreasonable possibility that a reckless incompetent somehow made their way through your watertight recruitment process, that just leaves human fallibility - otherwise perfectly smart people sometimes just screw up. 

What you do about that is entirely up to you as a leader - are you the kind who, like Ernst Blofeld in the James Bond stories, meets failure with a tank full of ravenous piranhas, or are you the type who believes fear doesn’t generally bring out the best in people

If you’re in the first camp, fair enough - just don’t expect any sympathy when you’re on the other side of the fish tank.

Image credit: Express Newspapers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


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