Are good leaders smart?

Have you ever had a boss that just didn’t get it? Maybe they were just a little behind the times, or couldn’t grasp the fundamentals of your job, or just seemed to be living in another reality. Didn’t you wish they were a little, well, smarter? Well, be careful what you wish for. Sometimes, smarter isn’t better.

Here’s the deal. Whether you’re talking about the workplace, an undergrad student association, or international politics, smarter leaders are more effective. And that just makes sense. How are you supposed to come up with solutions and manage a team if you don’t have the brainpower? But a couple of decades ago, psychologist Dean Simonton came up with a counterintuitive hypothesis. Smarter leaders are better, sure — as long as they’re not too smart. Now that he’s finally been able to test that belief, it seems like he might have been onto something.

Carried out with the help of two other researchers, Simonton’s 2017 study observed 379 leaders from 30 different countries in fields including retail, banking, and technology. The participants were all given IQ tests, and each was rated on their effectiveness by eight of their team members. Now, that’s not exactly airtight data — IQ tests aren’t necessarily the most reliable metrics in the world, and any individual’s rating of their boss’s worth is subjective. Still, a clear pattern seemed to emerge from the results.

In general, the better the managers performed on their IQ tests, the more effectively their employees ranked them. But there was a clear cutoff point: managers with an IQ of 120 or higher experienced a sharp drop-off in how they were seen by the people under them. There could be a few reasons for this: maybe the plans that smarter leaders make are over their employees’ heads. Maybe their strategies are so complicated that they’re just too difficult to implement. Or maybe it just comes down to a difficulty relating with people. After all, it’s hard to get inspired by somebody that you can’t understand on a human level.

But the researchers are quick to note that the takeaway shouldn’t be that companies should stop promoting smarter people or hiring them as leaders. Instead, they should consider that the IQ ceiling might change depending on the field that they’re working in. And even more importantly, they should consider how to overcome the barriers that IQ puts up. If a leader cursed with a high intellect is having trouble bridging the gap, they might be able to handle the problem by relying on their charisma instead of their brains.

Interesting reads:


  1. In my years of experience, I wonder if perhaps the other side of the coin should be looked at — the IQ of “followers” — rare is the “intelligent” “leader” who is also a team player — they love to claim they are while really just enjoying their power and not recognizing and being threatened by the “followers” with intelligence.

    Liked by 1 person

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