The subject of this story (we will call him Mike) was a lawyer and had been a brilliant litigator for most of his law career. As a litigator he had an impressive record of wins. He was feared by other litigators because of his intellectually aggressive style – both in delivering his arguments and in picking holes in the arguments of his adversaries.

For many years Mike had dreamt of becoming his law firm’s managing partner. He had finally won the role of the firm’s managing partner because of his success in bringing in huge amounts of revenue as a litigator. The difficulty was that he attempted to lead the firm using the same intellectual style he used in litigation. For example, Mike led weekly management meetings for the firm’s management committee and monthly meetings for the firm’s fifty partners. He dominated these meetings through the shear power of his intellect.

Mike was highly intelligent and expressed this intelligence with clear, powerful and well reasoned communications. He thought through what he had to say carefully and thoroughly, because he would not just present an argument, but would also often list what he thought the counterarguments might be. He would then include his own arguments against those possible counterarguments.

Also, Mike could think well on his feet. If he was asked questions or someone disagreed with him, he could respond with quick, clear, relevant and logical answers. Through the power of his logic, Mike usually won his arguments – but often at the cost of losing the hearts, the loyalty and the commitment of the people in his firm. Equally, many people were aware that the power of a logically structured argument did not, in and of itself, guarantee that Mike had the best case.

As a result of all of this Mike managed to alienate virtually everyone he came into contact with. Thus, after just nine months as managing partner, without warning, a leadership challenge occurred at a monthly partners meeting. Mike was unanimously voted out as managing partner and a new partner voted into office. The affect on Mike was devastating. He tried to go back to litigation work but it no longer interested him – and a few months later he retired.

Shortly after he retired Mike came to me for coaching to assist him in overcoming his compulsive need to be so intellectually dominant. During these sessions it became clear how this pattern emerged: in school he was not good at sports and he lacked the social skills necessary to form good relationships – and thus he “felt like a nobody” (his words). But in the last two years of high school he joined the debating club and he turned out to be an extremely good debater. He thrived in this intellectually competitive environment and this became his only way of feeling self esteem.

Having lost so much, Mike’s desire to change was very great and he made rapid progress over the six months of coaching. Through meditation and other exercises he learned to experience a kind of internal self esteem that did not depend on external accomplishments – and the need to be intellectually dominant gradually melted away. About a year after our coaching sessions ended Mike contacted me and told me he had started a new career – he had become a mediator for legal disputes. Through this he was able to use his legal knowledge and brilliant intellect to find win/win solutions rather than the win/lose outcomes from his earlier litigation career!

Have you encountered people who use their intellect as a weapon? What was the result?