If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re probably not a good leader

Calling all the shots is bossism, not leadership.
Calling all the shots is bossism, not leadership.
Image: AP Photo
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I learned that there’s something wrong with feeling like the smartest person in the room from a man with a third-grade education—from my grandfather Luther, who along with my father founded the Dollar General Corporation, which I headed for 37-1/2 years.

It’s with more than a touch of shame that I admit I was embarrassed by Luther’s lack of education when I was a boy. He had dropped out of school after his father died, when he was 11, in order to work on the family farm, and eventually saved enough money to open his own shop. I loved and admired him, but the way he butchered language sometimes made me wince.

Gradually, my childhood sensitivity to that minor flaw was greatly outweighed by my respect for his business acumen and his keen insight into people.

My grandfather’s lack of formal education was never a hindrance. In fact, from the beginning, he was able to turn it into and advantage. He was convinced that everyone he met was smarter than he was and that he needed to learn something from each of them. That’s a natural assumption to make when you’re a teenager thrust into an adult world. It’s a brilliant strategic move when you’re an adult building a family business.

Luther became a first-rate observer, a great listener, and a dedicated student of life. What he practiced was more than empathy. It involved valuing the other person and his or her information, insight, and perspective.He knew that, as a leader, the minute you take the position of knowing everything, you put a lid on the creativity of the entire team. The agenda should instead be to get everyone involved in pushing the entire team to go higher and deeper.

I adopted that approach as a leadership principle during my days with Dollar General, and I believe it made me a better CEO. It meant spending time in stores talking with managers and clerks; it meant road testing changes in stores before making them policy. One time, I was speaking about mission statements, to a group of our executives, and afterward one of our executives, a born introvert, approached me, a born extrovert, walked up and told me his. It was far better and more succinct than mine, and I adopted it on the spot.

There are times, of course, when you’ve got to be a boss. When the barn is on fire in the middle of the night, you have to tell people what to do and have them do it now. But this is not leadership, which is instead built on relationships and on the ability to ask for help.

When you place value on other people, they then aspire to be even more valuable— to bring fresh perspective to the table and to benefit your company.

At the same time my grandfather was leaving behind the dusty fields and mule-pulled plow to begin his journey to develop true leadership, President Woodrow Wilson came to a similar understanding. He said in 1914, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.”

It worked for my grandfather all his life. It didn’t do badly for Wilson either. And I recommend it to you.

Cal Turner, Jr. is the former CEO of Dollar General Corporation and the author of ”MY FATHER’S BUSINESS: The Small-Town Values That Built Dollar General into a Billion-Dollar Company.