Do you think that being the most "serious" person in the room means you should be in charge? Are you seriously serious? Seriously? But chances are you know someone who thinks and acts like this. You know who I'm talking about. Since we all know this person, I offer these thoughts in response in the hopes that we can collectively end this false fascination with the forlorn...
Mature and Wise, but not Serious
Several times in my life, I’ve had people say that I’m “mature for my age” or “wise beyond my years”. I can tell they mean these compliments as high praise, so I’m happy to know that I have sufficiently impressed people to be worthy of their linguistic affectations. I also know that in many instances it is meant to remind me that I’m younger—or at least that I look that way.
Yes, I may occasionally be wiser than many my age. Most of the time, I am mature. However, I’m not a serious person. I rarely take anything too seriously. I’ll admit, this has been a perception challenge at times—but why? While I may inherently exemplify life lessons and leadership styles that others envy and make me seem “wise beyond my years”, I’m just not serious. Which is an important lesson about true leadership: seriousness is not the same as maturity or wisdom. But people make that mistake all the time.
The Death Bed and the Funeral Parlor
Now, I don’t mean to say that I don’t take situations seriously, I certainly do. But I don’t believe that challenging situations always require me to assume the demeanor I might exhibit at the death bed of a serioiusly ill friend. Do you? Being situationally appropriate is one thing. Donning the grimmest expression possible and confusing that for the right to lead the room is another.
Tell me if this doesn’t sound familiar: You are in a room, discussing an important business initiative or significant challenge, and the most serious person starts to command and control the room. And the room increasingly takes on the feel of a funeral parlor as all the smiles are squeezed out. You crack a joke to lighten the mood and crickets. You "must not get how serious" this really is.
Here’s the real question: should we be holding these grim grandstanders in such authoritarian reverence? No. At least…not for that reason. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think serious people can be great leaders, and I have known many amazing men and women who are just more reserved by nature—and are fantastic leaders. But I have also known several “serious people” who feel certain that their sober and somber attitude gives them moral authority in most situations, despite the fact that they can’t always be counted on to display the wisdom necessary to fully appreciate the best strategy, or the maturity to engage in trustworthy leadership practices. In short, they lack key characteristics of great leaders.
Defaulting to a Smile
So here's what I suggest: Default to a smile. They are infectious. They lift people up. I was actually in a room last week where serious planning was occurring—and not one single person was smiling as their default condition. Does assuming a more dour demeanor actually improve your ability to create ideas or shape strategy? Does it create moral authority? Not that I can tell. I believe that life should be explored with child-like wonder and that is one of the cornerstones of my leadership style, as well as my personal and professional creativity. It means I smile and laugh. A lot. Children have this part of life right. I suggest we all explore life with wonder and fascination, which allows us to embrace creative solutions that others don’t see. It creates the mental environment for true wisdom and as an adult, it doesn’t preclude or prevent the maturity to understand appropriate personal interactions.
I offer this because it’s okay to smile, laugh, enjoy life—even in the most mundane or difficult professional moments. The most serious person is not always right. So be wise beyond your years. Be mature for your age. Just don’t be so damn serious.