10/01/2012 03:16 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

I Am Not the One

When I consider whom to hire, I am not usually interested in the smartest person in the room. I would much rather hire the second smartest person in the room.

I cringe at discussions of candidates for an opening on the staff that start from the assumption that there is one person alone who is clearly ahead of all others. In rare cases, perhaps that is so. But that indicates more than anything else the pool was not developed well. I believe reframing the inquiry is crucial to creating a community that functions as it should.

Let me put it another way. I was not the most qualified person who applied for the job I happen to hold. I was one credible choice among many possibilities. Different options involved selecting among alternative visions of leadership.

There would have been other reasonable outcomes. And anyone who purports to lead should remember they do not have an exclusive claim on the role they occupy for now.

Research suggests there is not any such person as the single smartest anyway. Howard Gardner has shown there are multiple intelligences. People who are exceptionally strong on one scale are not necessarily equally strong on another scale.

Even without Gardner's theory, which is not without detractors, there are compelling arguments for conceiving of employment searches differently. Moneyball, the book and the movie, persuaded everyone in the sport of baseball and watching from the bleachers that the customary statistics for assessing players, combined with hunches, were not as good as previously unheard-of measurements -- sabermetrics, to use the term never mentioned by Brad Pitt on the silver screen.

Even if we took for granted that there is a smartest person in the room, she is not who we expect her to be. Batting average and home runs per season have alternatives that are demonstrably better in assessing contributions to wins. Among lawyers at the major firms, for example, the top of the class graduate from the most elite schools is not the most likely to become the managing partner. Other factors matter more.

Suppose it is possible to sort a group of one hundred applicants to find, say, the top five by some single indication of raw brainpower that is general and meaningful. The transaction costs of then defining the "most qualified" among those five for the particular need, much less then identifying who that individual happens to be, aren't worth it.

I figure once you're in the top five, for any purposes I might have in mind you're smart enough. Then other qualities deserve consideration.

Assuming we could rank order everyone, we should not do that based on one characteristic. The intelligent person who has enough self-awareness to realize they might not be innately at the very top is more likely to have a strong work ethic. Indeed, the belief that it is possible to improve is crucial to doing so. Integrity matters too. Etc.

It would be different if I had a job available that was extremely specialized, requiring an employee performing a single task of mental processing in isolation. There are hardly any jobs of that nature. Most roles require at least a modicum of versatility.

Yet inexplicably we increasingly structure our world based on competitions that attempt to compare incommensurables. The dominant paradigm has become "there can be only one," to borrow the tagline of an old science fiction movie that has become a cult classic. Others had their heads cut off in Highlander, starring Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery in a comeback role.

I enjoy television cooking programs, for example. I also like to eat a wide range of cuisines, from Japanese to French to fusion. And when I watch Iron Chef, Top Chef, or any of their imitators, I always wonder how judges believe it possible to compare across cuisines (at least Iron Chef controls that variable more or less), dishes, and palates.

Sure, there are concoctions that are terrible to virtually anyone's tongue. I once read a review of a wine that was described as "feculent," which having looked up in the dictionary, I would guess everyone to be averse to. There also are dishes that are highly likely to be crowd-pleasers, demonstrably so, for biological reasons. But at the high level of not only competence but also creativity that is displayed by the final rounds of the reality show, it is impossible to rank in any true sense -- one's affection for cilantro seems to vary based on genetics. Drama does not depend on objectivity.

I'm not saying I want to assemble either a faculty or staff of idiots. I'm not endorsing the confirmation of Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court. Nominated by President Richard Nixon, Carswell's unsuccessful bid is remembered for the defense of his record with the following argument by a Senatorial ally: "Even if he were mediocre, there are lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance?"

I'm saying that David Halberstam had it right when he wrote his book "The Best and the Brightest." In that account of the Vietnam war, the journalist meant the phrase with irony. In our conventional use of the phrase, we have forgotten that important note.