Is It Better to Be Smart or Effective?

Is It Better to Be Smart or Effective? by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by Darnok, Available at

Would you rather be smart or effective? Smart people typically have good answers to questions, know the history of an issue or relationship, and can access credible resources to obtain more answers. Effective people usually get the job done, are consistent producers, and work quite well with others. In reality, every organization needs both smart and effective people, and no one is purely one or the other, but for this thought exercise, choose one.

I know a man I’ll call “David.” David is smart. He knows a lot about a lot of things. You can engage him in an intelligent discussion about politics, art and music, popular culture, technology, religion, and more. Perhaps a weak spot for David is sports, but if he wanted to, he could become sports-smart, too. David is a go-to guy when you have a question!

Now let me tell you about “Steve.” Steve is effective. He is just as effective as David is smart. When Steve has a job to do, it gets done, and usually with excellence. Steve routinely tackles difficult problems and develops solutions that work quite well. He understands people, knows how to get them to work together, and isn’t afraid of a challenge. When you need results, go get Steve!

Being smart and being effective are both great choices, but which would you rather be? Smart or effective? Have your picked your answer? Well … hang on a moment. There is a dynamic to this question that needs to be explored. People and their characteristics do not exist in a void, absent of other people. People, Davids and Steves, exist and work with other people – colleagues, bosses, customers, vendors, and others. The issue here isn’t just that David is smart and that Steve is effective. The issue includes the fact that other people know David as smart and they know Steve as effective. They have a reputation as being either smart or effective.

So let me put a new twist on my question: Would you rather have a reputation as being smart or being effective? Yes, again, you are right, both are good. When it comes to reputations, though, people generally carry a one-word label on their forehead, not a list of qualities that creates a well-rounded description. Test my theory. Think of three people you work with. For each, as their name comes to mind you can probably identify an adjective that overwhelmingly captures their reputation. Ken: wise. Mike: visionary. Robb: heart for Jesus.

Reputations aren’t always fair in this way; they don’t capture the full picture. So the question remains: would you rather have a reputation as smart or effective?

Here is my take on the matter. Having a reputation as being smart is good, but assuming you are or want to be a leader, it is limiting. A reputation for being smart is not enough in the realm of leadership. Being known for having answers is a lot different from being known for actually accomplishing things. Leading is a future-focused, action-oriented role. Having answers to questions and being able to discuss a variety of topics is not enough to move people and organizations toward the future.

On the other hand, a reputation for effectiveness is what leaders look for in other leaders. Put in mathematical terms, [Effectiveness] = [Action] + [Results]. Leaders combine action and results thus creating a reputation for effectiveness that helps the organization get from where they are to where they want to be. Effective people may not always the smartest people, but they know truly smart people and how to include them in their action plan for results.

Would you rather have a reputation for being smart or effective? Ask a few people the same question and talk about it. Also ask them, “Is my reputation more about being smart or effective?”

For an excellent discussion on this issue see Marshall Goldsmith’s book, Mojo (Hyperion, 2009), pp. 65-69.

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