Smartest guy in the room? or something else?

“Darrell’s the smartest guy in the room,” my companion whispered as we entered a high-level meeting that would determine the future of Western Civilization or something equally momentous, like the selection of junk food in the company vending machines.

“The smartest guy in the room,” she repeated gravely.

“But there aren’t that many people in room,” I responded.

What she meant — in non-corporate, intelligible terms — was that Darrell always acted as if he were the smartest guy in the room, and we’ve all met our share of people like that, especially in the corporate boardroom, which is the equivalent of the Greek Pantheon … or the  Greek Parliament debating the debt crisis.

Whenever I hear someone say, “He (she’s) the smartest person in the room,” I suffer an anxiety attack and think, “I hope HR didn’t check my SAT scores, or the boss will discover I’m the dumbest guy in the room.”

This little chest-thumping exercise is common in business, academia, government and politics. There’s always a highly compensated clown in the crowd, who feels threatened and has to act like he’s the best and the brightest. It’s two parts inflated ego and three parts repressed insecurity.

My experience has been that men and women who act like they’re the smartest are often “blowhards,” which in case you didn’t know, is a clinical psychological term to describe people whose expertise consists in blowing hot air.

Darrell was a corporate windbag, prone to giving long soliloquies about growing the business and the challenges of the digital age. He often threw out facts to impress the assembled masses. He may have even invented PowerPoint. Secretly everyone was thinking, “When is this know-it-all going to shut up and let someone else talk?”

When he finally stopped flapping his jaw long enough to catch his breath, an unwitting employee tried to speak, but Darrell cut him off. He was ready to go another round, pontificating about the perils of doing business in Shanghai or some other nonsense like home-brewing beer or the best investments for retiring Baby Boomers.

Darrell kept talking, but all I could hear was “Blab blah blah blah.” Some people furtively rolled their eyes. Claiming the mantle of being the smartest guy in the room comes with liabilities because everyone thinks you’re a jerk, who won’t listen to other points of view.

A few weeks later, I had another equally painful encounter with an executive who was competing for the distinction of being the smartest guy in the room, but I was convinced he was actually the dumbest guy in the room.

As I was daydreaming about something profoundly important like playing fetch with the dog when I got home, I had this insane idea. What if we all had as our career goal being the humblest guy or gal in the room?

How amazing would it be if we didn’t try to show off, but recognized we’re all fallen humans with gifts and talents and deficiencies and frailties? What if instead of being pompous, we took the lowest seat at the wedding feast because someday, as they say, the first will be last and the last will be first.

For once, we’d truly listen to what others had to say instead of trying to prove how brilliant we are. We’d be more considerate. We’d compete less for social recognition and honors that are ultimately meaningless.

Yes, life would be different. The lion would lie down with the lamb. Democrats would hug Republicans. Republicans would hug George Soros, not to mention Hillary Clinton.

A little humility never hurt anyone. It makes us better people. It gives us empathy. It gives us compassion.

Contact Joe Pisani at joefpisani [at]