How to Lead People Smarter Than You

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

I’m glad you clicked on this article. It means that you are aware that you are leading people smarter than you, and you need some help. That’s awesome. Think about all of the leaders out there that read this headline and kept scrolling because they assume they are smarter than all of their team members.

Why do leaders like that exist? Well, we make them. Executives and directors look around their teams for those capable of stepping up and taking on the responsibility of management. Often, we look to the highest performing, most experienced, and brightest to tap on the shoulder for management.

That almost happened to me, but it didn’t work out.

About seven years into my career, I was a senior engineer. I expressed to my higher-ups that I wanted to get into management. My engineering specialty was a technology called Citrix. We were merging with another company and I wanted to lead the combined team. For a variety of political reasons, that just wasn’t going to happen.

Instead, I was offered a management position leading the middleware web technology team. I understood the technology but wasn’t the top expert. In fact, everyone on the team was more experienced than I was. I really wanted to get into management, so I took the job.

That first management role and every role I’ve held since has required me to lead people who know more than I do on any given technical subject.

That helped me develop some effective leadership habits from the onset. If I had gotten my wish and led a team out of the center of my expertise, it may have stunted my leadership growth.

16 years later, here are the leadership lessons I’ve learned from leading people smarter than me:


It’s okay to start out dumb, but don’t stay that way. Top technical experts do not want to work for someone that doesn’t understand what they do. I’ve immersed myself in so many different technical disciplines over the years, I’ve lost track of them all.

In one season, I learned everything I could about IBM i/Power Systems (aka AS/400) technology. I’ve learned network engineering and information security. I’ve learned cloud technology. I’ve learned agile software development and product methodologies. I’ve even learned SAP from a starting point of “what the heck is Basis?”

The only thing worse than a dumb manager is a dumb manager that doesn’t ask questions. If you don’t understand, then you should ask questions.

As a people leader, you don’t need to get to the level of “hands-on-keyboard” proficiency, but you should get as close as you can. Why? Because your team needs you to.


People leaders also get the responsibility of managing the budget. You can’t do a credible job of budgeting for and purchasing a million-dollar technology investment if you can’t speak confidently about how it works, what options were considered, how it will be supported, and what value it will produce.

Being technically competent as a manager requires a combination of direct first-hand knowledge, supported with insight and collaboration from the smartest people on your team.


I remember back when I was an engineer. I had teammates with brilliant ideas that never saw the light of day. It was frustrating and sad. As a leader, I committed myself to the task of curating the best ideas and communicating them upward, so they would get funded and supported.

I remember managing one team that was completely dejected because the executives would never spend a dime on their needed technology investments.

I listened to them, learned the specifics, presented the case, and got the investment. My engineers were shocked and amazed. Same engineers, same executives, different management.

I felt like Red from the movie, The Shawshank Redemption. I was the man who could get things for my fellow inmates in our corporate institution.


I’ve had the privilege of leading some of the most brilliant and motivated technologists in the industry. They don’t need me to tell them what to do. But they all need a little inspiration. Yes, that seems a bit touchy-feely considering the technical nature of the work, but it’s real.

Smart experts, just like everyone else want to be reminded about what it’s all for. Why are we doing this? What’s our worthy cause and what’s my part in it?

Technical experts often work behind the scenes and need help making the connection between their work and their impact on the mission. Be the leader that makes the connection.


Finally, your smart team members need you to believe in them. After you learn, manage, advocate, and inspire, don’t forget to let them know that you have confidence in their abilities, and you are proud of their accomplishments.

The more you treat them like a world-class team, the more they will act like it.

Those are my leadership lessons. It’s a privilege to lead. If your team members are smarter than you, don’t be intimidated, be grateful! Then do for them what they cannot do for themselves. Together, you will work wonders.

Read this article on my blog site or listen to it on my podcast🎙️



Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.

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Zach Hughes

Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.