Why Do Smart People Do Dumb Things?

Why do smart people do dumb things? As a leadership coach, I see this often and it perplexes me. Like Former Presidential Candidate John Edwards. He was on track to possibly be the President of the United States and then it all went up in flames. It might not be of the same magnitude for most of us, but the choice to do something dumb is presented to us regularly.

Maybe for you, it’s the end of the workweek. You are tired, you have given all of yourself this week, and just as you are about to go home you notice someone has made a mistake on a big project. No one else has noticed it, and you could easily gloss over it and head for the door. You also know if you don’t fix it now, maybe no one will. What do you do? Do you take the responsibility, or skip out, leaving the project to suffer? 

Life is filled with little moments like this. Moments where we can commit to higher versions of ourselves, ones where we can choose to either do the right thing or let it slip, moments where we decide whether we are going to be champions or not.

Champions are people of character. In Uncommon, Tony Dungy says “Outwardly, character reflects an inner life committed to honor and uncompromising integrity,” that, “In the end, character is a blend of inner courage, wisdom, and a sense of duty to yourself, to others, and to something greater than you.”

When we choose to gloss over the little things, we let others and ourselves down. Dr. Henry Cloud emphasizes this when explaining some of the traits that successful leaders have:

·       They have some set of competencies: know their field, know their discipline, know their industry, etc.

·       They are an alliance builder with others who can help get the job done

·       They have the character to not screw it up.

We almost always know what the right thing to do is, but the best leaders, the champions in any setting, are the ones with the character not to let things get derailed. The ones to do the right thing anyway, even if they don’t feel like it. When we don’t have this character, Dr. Cloud says, it can lead to various pitfalls:

·       Hitting a ceiling lower than our talent suggests

·       Getting derailed by some obstacle or situation

·       Reaching great success only to self-destruct and lose it all

Rarely do the above pitfalls have anything to do with competencies, brains, or talent; yet, for some reason, people just can’t get out of their own way. An otherwise capable and successful person completely flies off the tracks, and we think to ourselves, “How can someone so smart do something so dumb?” The answer is that it all comes back to character. The character not to screw it up.

So how do we not screw it up? Dr. Cloud says that people with character:

·       Connect authentically and show a genuine interest in others

·       Are oriented toward the truth, and confront brutal facts

·       Make the hard calls and know when to let go and move on

·       Embrace, engage, and deal with the negatives

·       Transcend the situation and are aware there are bigger things at work than themselves

Character is the thing that makes champions out of all of us but living with character is also the hardest thing to do. It requires us to confront the hard questions and make the tough decisions.

Busy developing the character not to screw it up,

Dr. Tomi