When Erin and I were in our mid-20s, our next-door neighbors were a bright couple named Christy and WC. One day when Christy was talking to her friend Barb, she discovered they both knew me – in fact, Barb was my assistant at the consulting firm where I worked. With a conspiratorial grin, Christy asked her what I was really like at work. Christy later told Erin what my assistant’s sincere response was, and Erin told me. (At this point in the story, you can imagine me leaning forward with nervous anticipation.)
What was Barb’s assessment of me? “He’s brilliant,” she had said.
What a gift that Barb, Christy, and Erin gave me! Even many years later, this generous compliment gives me great confidence. When I experience moments of doubt, I can push beyond it by remembering:
I am brilliant. I was brilliant then. I am brilliant now.
I may not be right this time. I may not have focused all my brilliance on the problem yet. I may not have sufficiently engaged the right people on the problem. But I am fully competent. I have what it takes. I’m surrounded by other brilliant people, and together we will succeed.
“He’s brilliant.” It’s my own version of Descartes’ foundational statement: “I think, therefore I am.” When everything else seemed in doubt, Descartes knew he was a thinking being who truly existed. When I experience self-doubt, fear, or even failure, I still know this to be true: I am brilliant; I have a spark of genius that the world needs me to share.
Now, this all may sound egotistical. You may be thinking, “This guy is full of himself!” But in all earnestness, I believe you too are brilliant … and so are the people you lead in business and in life.
Howard Gardner, Professor of Education at Harvard, has studied intelligence for more than twenty years and has developed methods to test the multiple intelligences of humans from birth to adulthood. Through his research, Gardner and his colleagues found that virtually all of the children they tested were at the genius level through the age of four. However, by age twenty, only 10 percent of the same children were at the genius level, and over age twenty, the number dropped to 2 percent! It makes you wonder: What happened to the children’s genius? Where did it go? Actually, it didn’t go anywhere. It’s still there, but it’s hidden deep within them.
– Simon Bailey, Release Your Brilliance
Nearly everyone is a genius? You may dismiss this as unrealistic, positive-mental-attitude nonsense. But let me suggest that our commonly accepted definition of “genius” may benefit from being broadened.
As mentioned above, the research of psychologist Howard Gardner identified multiple types of intelligence. These include:
- Kinesthetic (skillful use and stewardship of the body, sometimes referred to as BQ)
- Emotional (intra-personal and inter-personal, commonly referred to as EQ)
- Existential/spiritual/moral (sometimes referred to as MQ)
When I was a child, at school we were graded in various subjects and also took IQ exams. These essentially focused on the first two types of intelligence in the list above, verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical. Athletic ability was also highly valued and rewarded, although at the time it was not considered to be the kinesthetic intelligence that Gardner identified.
In more recent years, the importance of emotional intelligence has become widely acknowledged. In fact, some research suggests that EQ may be more important than IQ in many professions.
And will time prove Gardner right about the importance of the other intelligences too? I think so.
Discovering and Re-discovering Genius
Are you above-average in one or more of the intelligences? Are you perhaps a genius in them? If you can ever remember someone finding you brilliant or remarkable, the answer is probably “yes.” And the same is true for your team. And your children. Most everyone has gifts and brilliance that can shine by being brought into the light and nurtured.
Some people need you to help them discover their brilliance. As I shared in Engaging Leader episode 22, Messages They Need to Hear from You, Erin and I have told our four kids they are geniuses ever since they were tiny tots. So far, each has lived up to this expectation. Yet each one is unique, revealing brilliance in quite different types of intelligence from each other.
Other people may need a simple reminder, to help them re-discover their brilliance. Not long ago, a colleague at Aspendale shared with me some self-doubts about her performance in the initial steps of an assignment for a new client. The timeline had been very tight, and the client so far had provided very little communication and no feedback. “I really hope I haven’t hurt things,” she said. “I’m not sure I made the best first impression, but hopefully there will be other opportunities to show them what I’m capable of.”
I reflected on her long history of dazzling clients. “You’re the best,” I reminded her. “I’m not worried. If this client isn’t happy with you, it wasn’t meant to be.” She went on to lead our project team and the client to success.
Virtually all people have genius, though it may be hidden. You can bring out the best in people by helping them recognize their brilliance. Here are three keys to uncover the brilliance in yourself and in those you lead:
- Keep your eye out for evidence of brilliance. Be like my assistant Barb: turn on your brilliance-detector and be a genius scout. Keep in mind that genius can be harder to spot if you’re unfamiliar with the multiple intelligences.
- Tell the story, often. When you discover proof of genius, share the story to make sure the person knows about it and remembers it. Remember that a story is about .” href=”https://engagingleader.com/how-to-tell-stories-that-stick-part-1-forest-and-trees/”>specific people doing specific things.
- Reduce it to short mantra or proverb that connects to the story, or is otherwise meaningful to you or the person you are leading. This makes it easier to call to mind in those dark moments of darkness. “He’s brilliant.” “You were a genius then; you’re a genius now.” “Exercising my genius is a choice.”
As leaders, we need a quiet confidence in our own brilliance in order to let our gifts truly shine. And we need to help those we lead do the same. Together, our brilliance can light up our world.
Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the Engaging Leader podcast and the managing principal of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.