Do smarter people make better leaders? Although the general answer is "yes," it depends on what you mean by "smart." Almost a century of research on basic intelligence (what is referred to as "academic" or "verbal" intelligence - better known as IQ) suggests that IQ is slightly to moderately related to attaining a leadership position and to leader success. But that doesn't always fit with people's experience. Some who we consider geniuses don't always make good leaders, for example, scientists, brilliant mathematicians, breakthrough artists. On the other hand, we see leaders who don't appear particularly smart. One US congressman recently said, "you don't have to be a genius to be in Congress." So, IQ matters, but not as much as we might think. There are, however, other types of intelligence.
In the past dozen or so years there has been huge interest in what is called "emotional intelligence" (EQ as opposed to IQ). Emotional intelligence is the ability to communicate with others at an emotional level, to use emotions to help guide decision making, to be able to regulate emotions, and possessing knowledge about emotions and emotional processes. Is EQ related to leadership? Yes, to some extent. It's important for creating good relationships between leaders and followers, and charismatic leaders seem to have an extraordinary ability to communicate at the emotional level. Again, however, the relationship between EQ and leadership is significant but small. But there is a third form of intelligence important for leaders, and it has not received much attention.
Social intelligence is the ability to understand social situations, to play social roles, and to influence others. It involves being able to see others' perspectives and to understand the complex and abstract social norms, or informal "rules" that govern all types of social situations. Social intelligence is what some refer to as "street smarts" or "everyday intelligence." Our research suggests that social intelligence may be the most important type of intelligence for leaders, although all three types of intelligence, verbal, emotional, and social, are advantageous for leaders.
So, how does this relate to those of us in or aspiring to leadership positions? The good news is that the last two forms of intelligence, emotional and social, are pliable. They can be developed. EQ and SQ (I don't think anyone has actually used that to represent social intelligence, but we will) both relate to interpersonal skills, and more we develop our interpersonal or people skills, the more we will enhance our emotional and social intelligences.
If you want to learn more about research on multiple intelligences and leadership:
If you want to know about all things in leadership, the new Bass Handbook is just out:
Follow me on Twitter: