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Are the Most Intelligent Leaders the Most Effective?

April 28, 2017

leadership_intelligence.jpgWhen I think about a day-in-the-life of a leader, I imagine leaders making critical decisions that set team or organizational goals, problem-solving with team members on issues that arise, integrating multiple pieces of information to understand current events, and so forth. Critical thinking is common to these activities. Depending on the role and level of leadership, this may be more or less intense. However, I think we can all agree that decision-making skills and strategic thinking are critically important for success on the job. There is a lot of research to show that cognitive ability, or intelligence, is one of the best predictors of job performance.

Oftentimes, we assume that more is always better. But in a new research article, "Can Super Smart Leaders Suffer from Too Much of a Good Thing? The Curvilinear Effect of Intelligence on Perceived Leadership Behavior," John Antonakis and colleagues actually found that, while intelligence is important, the level of intelligence is dependent on the people they are leading.

The study surveyed 379 mid-level managers in seven different multi-national companies representing a range of industries, including banking, insurance, food manufacturing, telecommunications, hospitality, and retail. The managers were given intelligence tests as well as a range of other personality tests. Managers were rated on their perceived leadership effectiveness, which was typically provided by their subordinates.

The results demonstrated:

  • The intelligence of managers has a strong relationship with leadership effectiveness. However, they didn't find a linear relationship (i.e., more intelligence is related to higher performance).

  • The researchers found an inverted "U" relationship. Meaning, higher intelligence is related to being more effective up to a point. There is a point at which intelligence may begin to hinder their effectiveness on the job.

  • They found that the optimal level of intelligence of leaders depends on the average level of intelligence of the group being led. The researchers determined that the most ideal condition is for the leader to have an IQ of about 1.2 standard deviations higher than that of the team led. For example, if the employees have an average IQ of 110 points, leader effectiveness will peak when a leader has an IQ of 128 points. Thereafter, the relationship will taper off and become counterproductive.

Makes sense, right? I've had math professors who are very intelligent, but they couldn't communicate the concepts to us at a level we'd understand. Very intelligent leaders may be talking over the heads of their subordinates, to the point that they aren't able to communicate effectively with them. This gap can create problems. Leaders need to be smarter than their subordinates so they can better identify causes of problems and solutions to those problems, and then convey the best path forward. But they cannot be so intelligent that they speak in ways their team won't understand.

It's important to mention that the strength of this relationship may depend on the job itself. If leaders are required to interact often with their team or group, then the optimal level, or sweet spot, will be very important. If leaders have less day-to-day interactions with people and instead are required to provide more thought leadership, there may be more leeway in the spread of intelligence between managers and their staff.

When we are thinking about selecting leaders, this reiterates the importance of doing a job analysis. We need to consider the requirements and functions of the job to understand what should be measured and what level of skill is required for successful performance. Intelligence is important, but it's only one factor that determines leadership effectiveness.

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Alissa Parr, Ph.D. Alissa Parr, Ph.D. is a Senior Consultant at PSI. Her areas of expertise include the development, implementation, and evaluation of assessment processes. Alissa has experience managing entry-level through executive level assessment and selection efforts across a number of different industries including government, financial, military, education, healthcare, and manufacturing.