We react well to being called clever.

That comment has power. Yet we also have power to yield and use with our intelligence and our cleverness. Yet I experience a lot of this misfiring and being abused.

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

Yes we see being called clever as a truly powerful compliment.

For how we show up in the world and tackle the thing called life, if it we do it well and people label it as clever, that seems to be a pretty good thing. We’ve acquired our cleverness, we’ve had to study and work hard to be clever. We’ve put ourselves into a position where we know things and can do things because we’ve pushed ourselves and learned things.

You can be ever so smug with it though.

So be considerate with your cleverness is my urge.

Do you know best? Or do you just know what you know?

Do you try and persuade people and yield your cleverness like a powerful force?

Are you winning with your cleverness?

I’ve seen a few examples of cleverness that borders on aggressive, demeaning and devaluing behaviours.

Subject A is a professor, an academic with a big reputation.

Subject B is a senior level professional. Board-level, known to be a strong character and high-achiever.

Subject C is an independent consulting advisor. Known across the world for controversial thinking, being contrary and very different.

Subject D is a highly-regarded specialist in their field. Seemingly warm, generous and active, but with a darker side of exclusion, a bite and more clichéd than the clichés they say they despise.

Subject A: Create a model. Share the model. Have people question the model. Castigate those who don’t “get it”. Get into vitriol, insults even, and push back on everything except your point of view. Clever?

Subject B: Be included in a discussion. Show how clever and above all this you are with a pompous assertion. Watch like a sociopath as others take each other on about the meaning of your assertion and whether they believe it or not. Fail to offer anything other than starting a fight. Clever?

Subject C: Call out a theory. Challenge the (now departed) creator. Show how much you know what’s wrong with it and how what you’ve created instead is right. Attack people who defend the creator or that which they created. Be sarcastic and insulting in how you shoot down even those who try and calm the troubled waters. Clever?

Subject D: Jump into an online thread. Share a LOT of vague and rambling anecdotes. Ignore all others contributions and somehow bring the nature of the thread back to you and how advanced your thinking is whilst displaying a ton of faux modesty. Clever?

None of these are as clever as they believe they are. IMHO of course.

These appear to be people with egos unchecked. With their social empathy apparently more dialled down than they believe. And their willingness to show their cleverness like some weaponised diatribe, proving they’re centred only on themselves.

It’s the cognitive dissonance on display (and all these people know this because they’ve accused others of having this) that staggers me. I’d like to offer a small reminder of self-awareness to help us. Think HECK and don’t be a PHAV.

Humility. Empathy. Consideration. Kindness (HECK)

All erased or eclipsed by:

Pomposity. Hubris. Arrogance. Vanity (PHAV)

So what you say?

Well the so what is the absolute dilution of the very impact you probably want to have if you are of the PHAV sort. You want to show how you have the answers, or are of a certain level of significance so you act with PHAV.

I’d say that you achieve some of that. But I also sense you lose more than you gain. It becomes about you and who are you being; and not what you’re saying and offering.

Unless you are more of the HECK variety. So clearly are you removing YOU from the view, then people instantly see more clearly that which you’re offering. And then they’ll realise how you’ve done that, that this isn’t about you and then they regard you even more for doing so.

How have I come to believe this?

Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib wrote this piece for Harvard Business Review in 2014 (here) and found a correlation between humility (especially in leaders) and success at organisational level and throughout those companies who achieved such good results. Less attrition, stress leave and negative factors we see in some (what I call) Rihanna cultures (work, work, work, work, work).

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Reading Bob Chapman’s book “Everybody Matters”; reading the revised edition of “Firms of Endearment” by Raj Sisodia; watching Adam Grant’s TED talk on “Givers and Takers”; reading Nilofer Merchant’s work on “Onlyness”. And of course Brené Brown’s work.

Humility, Empathy, Consideration and Kindness are everywhere.

Except when they’re not.

And where they’re not, in those clever people I mentioned, they are lost to me.

Their points, their contributions, their creations vaporised and hidden by the cloud of their PHAV (Pomposity, Hubris, Arrogance and Vanity).

I’m not saying you have to be nice about everything. We have all seen how you can firm and fair, challenge and be considerate, debate and be delicate.

And I’ll leave you with this piece from HBR (here) and Margarita Mayo. She says “ Narcissistic leaders know how to draw attention toward themselves. They enjoy the visibility. It takes time for people to see that these early signals of competence are not later realized, and that a leader’s narcissism reduces the exchange of information among team members and often negatively affects group performance.”

Reduces the exchange of information and negatively affect group performance.

That’s what hubris etc. gets.

So what the HECK, choose humility for the long run and for the good of your own soul.

That’s the clever option.



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Perry Timms

CEO PTHR |2x TEDx speaker | Author: Transformational HR + The Energized Workplace | HR Most Influential Thinker 2017–2021 | Soulboy + Northampton Town fan