Few things block a team’s potential to perform at high levels more than a leader who insists on being the smartest person on the team. We’ve likely all seen it in action: Productivity plummets to an insulting grind when the person with the greatest positional or influential authority insists on:

  • Evaluating the merit of the decisions and ideas of others
  • Having the first and last words in discussions
  • Using a directive approach that sounds like this: “What you have to do is…”

As facilitators of leadership development, most of us in the industry recognize these harmful missteps. But what if what we’re doing as trainers inadvertently increases the likelihood that leaders use such destructive behaviors?

“In What Am I an Expert?” The Answer Determines What Students of Leadership Will Learn.

Some of the best facilitators have one consistent aspect of their delivery that differentiates the learning transfer they accomplish and ensures a productive approach. Importantly, what these facilitators are doing is transferable to other trainers on the team.

As trainers, we must regularly ask ourselves: Am I an expert at leadership? Or an expert at developing leaders? While someone can be both, the difference between these two is significant, so we must be certain our answer is the one that enables students of leadership to learn.

A connected, inclusive and engaged workforce is now the currency of successful organizations and will be even more so moving forward. Just as leaders who insist on being the expert in the room crush these traits, so must we as facilitators work hard to accomplish them during the development experience. While this is seemingly obvious, we’ve seen well-intentioned trainers (including this author) play the role of being the leadership expert. Whether it’s the advanced degree they hold from an elite school or the senior positions they’ve filled in organizations, facilitators can create an illusion that credentials are what matter most in developing others.

Facilitators who insist on being smarter than those they’re training are at high risk of developing leaders who think they need to be the same.

Developing Leaders by Putting Your Credentials to Work

The methods for effective pedagogy or teaching are well-researched and numerous. Three practices are particularly important in ensuring that learners receive content through an experience that is consistent with the type of leadership the workplaces of today need to succeed:

  • Mindset: Every person in the room has important wisdom to contribute. Organizations want their leaders to operate with this thinking; therefore, facilitators must model it impeccably. This thinking is beyond merely imploring trainers to use the Socratic method. This mindset requires truly knowing, embracing and being comfortable (even celebrating) that we are not the smartest person in the room. When we demonstrate this understanding, we remove ourselves as the barricade to learning, just as the leader releases his or her team to realize its potential. Trigger question: What do you do to prepare yourself to function with this mindset?


  • Be curious and co-discover with participants. We’ve all observed situations where two people with enlarged egos battle for the title of “I-know-more-than-you.” Most of us have also been in situations where everyone is inquisitive and co-discovering ways to be better leaders. The contrast between these two experiences is stark. The former shuts people down; the latter mobilizes the emotions, thinking and actions necessary for improvement. If we want our leaders to create this experience in our organizations, then we must overtly create it in the classroom, too. Trigger question: How do you model and facilitate curiosity among peers in the room?
  • Tell stories that emphasize lessons learned. Most of us want to know what successful people did to succeed. Stories that amplify how great we are, however, only send the message to others that they are not great. Stories that transfer knowledge most effectively are those told with humility: “Here’s the mistake I made and what I learned” or, “This is how I fell, and here’s how I got up.” Good storytelling communicates to the listener, “We have a lot in common. I believe that if I can do this, you can, too.”

As trainers, we play the critical role of facilitating students of leadership across important thresholds in their development. To do so requires that we go first in aspects of our own development. As we become greater forces in showing what it looks and feels like to be a part of a connected, inclusive and engaged working environment, we can expect leaders to deliver the same in their organizations.

How we think and act as facilitators remains as important, if not more so, than the content we deliver.