Perhaps the single most important leadership quality in a high-performing organization is the ability to manage people smarter than you. There are as many different leadership styles as there are personalities, but to keep the highest performers around, honesty and respect are non-negotiables. 

The smartest people in an organization are also usually the most adept at sniffing out bullshit, and by virtue of their capability, also are in highest demand on the open market. And while no leader may be intentionally dishonest or disrespectful, many lack the self-awareness to understand that when they fail to be fallible, vulnerable, or transparent, their teams are going to take it as bullshit. 

One of the main reasons I was drawn to design thinking is that projects start from a mutual understanding of “we don’t know.” When everyone is aligned in that, it becomes a lot easier to go forward towards the right solution faster. By contrast, one of the hardest things in corporate culture is sifting through the posturing and signaling that happens by leaders who don’t recognize their circle of competence or aren’t willing to be vulnerable or transparent about what they don’t know

I believe this ties closely to personal security. True self-confidence doesn’t stem from a title on a business card or always having the answer; it comes from within. The truly self-confident leader is comfortable not knowing the answer, and being transparent about it, because she trusts herself to ask the right questions and mobilize the right support to figure it out. And when a leader becomes comfortable in this space, it empowers the entire team she is leading, who aren’t constantly stifled by being “one upped” by their boss. 

Transparency is also important to make your team members feel like valued collaborators. 

I once had a director who would occasionally be unavailable because of meetings to discuss “business issues,” but would not divulge more. Besides the obvious point that any formal work meeting should only be to address a business issue, this type of vague communication generated only fear or apathy amongst team members. There may be some things like performance reviews that are justifiably confidential, but in this case, simply saying “we’re discussing performance calibration” will address the team’s inevitable curiosity. If it’s personal, say it’s personal–no need to give more details than that.

If you want to keep smart people around, you need to engage them with the real issues your business is facing and avoid generic statements that will only make them start piecing together a story in their minds.