“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” – Proverbs 27:17
During my investment banking days, I once got into a heated debate with my boss about the performance of a certain individual in our firm, who my boss considered invaluable because of his genius bond trading ability. While I could not disagree about his superior skills, the problem was he made enemies with almost everyone with whom he came in contact, which I argued was costing the firm more than his genius produced.
The problem with genius, Liz Wiseman explains in her brilliant book, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, is that some seem “to drain intelligence and capability out of the people around them. Their focus on their own intelligence and their resolve to be the smartest person in the room has a diminishing effect on everyone else’s.” Others, however, use “their intelligence as a tool rather than a weapon. They apply their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capability of people around them.” Wiseman refers to the former as “diminishers” due to their tendency to be “so absorbed in their own intelligence that they stifle others and dilute the organization’s crucial intelligence and capability.” The latter she labels as “multipliers” who bring out “the intelligence in others, creating collective, viral intelligence in their organization. One leader is a genius. The other is a genius maker.”
This whole concept she cleverly summarizes in the opening chapter of the book with a quote by Irish rock star Bono. “It has been said,” Bono states, “that after meeting with the great British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, you left feeling he was the smartest person in the world, but after meeting with his rival Benjamin Disraeli, you left thinking you were the smartest person in the world.”
Gladstone and Disraeli were both indisputably genius leaders in their time. But if one was a “diminisher” and the other a “multiplier” – that is, one purely genius versus the other a genius maker – which do you suppose had the greater and longer-lasting impact? And that, fundamentally, was the argument I was having with my boss that day. Certainly, the bond trader’s genius was to be applauded and rewarded, but how much more could have been produced by his genius had he been a multiplier rather than a diminisher? For, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”