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Safe Outcomes and the Clever

The definition of clever is “quick to understand and learn.” I would add “witty and sarcastic.” Why? Because I have noticed over the years that those described as clever tend to have a biting comment for anyone or anything of which they disapprove. This is often viewed as cool and by some, sophisticated --- a signal the witty comment indicates the speaker is not naive or easily fooled by the less clever. Here, I should confess that as a young man I admired the clever. Those who knew me way back then might also suggest that I fancied myself to be a bit of a wit!

A lot of time has washed over me in the intervening years. I no longer admire clever people. I tend to be uncomfortable and suspect of the clever. More often than not, I find cleverness to be just another form of egotism. The egotistical leader produces more harm than excellence. Here’s why: A leader’s decisions always tell us more about them than their intelligence, talent or wit. The egotist views every decision through the lens of “what’s in it for me?” Decisions are self-serving and their “intelligence” is weaponized to persuade others they are the smartest person in the room. Failing that, to persuade others to remain silent for fear of being the target of their clever wit.

Consistent, safe outcomes are the product of clear expectations, empathy, goodwill and more often than not, kindness. The merely clever do not inspire people to perform at their best. The clever “put down” may make the leader seem firm and smart. It will not position a leader to develop influence with their direct reports. Team members will do for a leader they trust and respect what they will never do for the leader who is clever --- at the expense of others.

People are not perfect. Their performance will never be flawless. The leader who provides clear expectations, grounded in human connection (empathy and goodwill), will lead employees to leverage their mistakes --- turning liabilities into strengths.

This is consistent with all we know about human behavior and neural science. As human beings we are programmed to learn from our mistakes. Provided the opportunity and necessary support, we perform better and better. The child learning to walk falls, gets up, tries again, falls, and tries yet again. Each time walking a little better and a little more confident. The child’s brain is collecting data, making adjustments and learning. Before long, a child who “walks” emerges from all the effort.

In the right environment, this process will repeat itself throughout a person’s lifetime. This is the path to excellence. Owning mistakes. Correcting mistakes. Learning from mistakes and then moving on to the next task or challenge. Cleverly reinforcing a demand for flawless (perfect) performance with a clever “put down” is a false path to safety excellence. It is a train that never arrives.

While I no longer admire clever people, I do admire the leader, with the strength of character, to lead others to excellence.

This is how you build a great business based on safety.

Ken Chapman

Co-Author of Safety Beyond The Numbers


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