Do The Smartest People Make Good Leaders?

The leadership ranks in most organizations tend to be filled with the smartest people in that organization.  Now you could argue that this is down to many organizations promoting those who are great at their job rather than necessarily great at leading others, but as a heuristic it kinda makes sense that leaders should be smart cookies.

Except the evidence doesn’t really back that up.  A recent study, for instance, finds that excessive intelligence tends to make people terrible leaders.

The researchers recruited nearly 400 mid-level leaders from companies spread across 30 European countries.  The leaders were from countries in areas such as banking and retail, telecoms to hospitality.  Each was asked to complate both a personality questionnaire and the Wonderlic Personnel Test to measure their intelligence (the average IQ was 111).

Each participant was then rated by a 3rd party according to their leadership performance, with eight ratings given for each person, either from peers, subordinates or superiors.  The evaluation covered things such as their leadership style.

The best leaders

So who did best?  In the study, it appeared that the female participants scored highly, as did older leaders, albeit to a lesser extent.  By far the biggest factor in the variance however was in intelligence.

The analysis found that intelligence was important for leadership, but only up to a point.  Once the IQ of the leader exceeded 120 their effectiveness went into reverse.  Leaders in this bracket scored worse on everything from their transformational capabilities to their instrumental leadership.

The authors suggest this is because highly intelligent leaders appear to be struggling to use the most effective forms of leadership, although they are keen to stress that there is no easily identifiable reason why super smart leaders fare worse than their less intellectual peers.

They also question whether the key is the gap between leader and team rather than the IQ of the leader themselves.  As such, there is no ‘optimum’ intelligence for a leader as the question is a very relative one.  It is a reminder that there can be too much of a good thing however.