Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Are Leaders Smarter than the Rest?

Why we so rarely put the smartest people in charge.

Key points

  • Intelligence is more beneficial for leadership than we actually think.
  • Because we value other traits more than intelligence, we often end up with narcissistic, psychopathic, and overconfident people in charge.
  • It's time to be smarter about our leadership choices.

Would people prefer to be led by someone smart or dumb? Although the question is rarely asked, it's safe to assume most people would pick the former.

And yet, the best scientific estimate for the relationship between leadership and intelligence suggests they overlap only by 4% (a correlation of 0.21). Imagine a Venn diagram with two circles, one representing intelligence, the other leadership potential, and they barely touch each other. What this means is that a lot of smart people never get to leadership roles. Likewise, you can expect a big proportion of leaders to be rather average when it comes to intelligence. Furthermore, we can expect many leaders to achieve exceptional levels of performance despite not being particularly smart, at least according to academic measures of intelligence, like IQ or cognitive ability tests.

In theory, of course, smarter leaders should perform better. After all, intelligence is a reliable and robust predictor of learning ability, and in complex times, what you know is less important than what you can learn, so there should be a clear advantage to having faster processing capacity in your brain, such as making quick sense of ambiguity, turning complex problems into simple solutions, and acquiring new knowledge and expertise faster and better than others. In short, it is logical to expect leaders to stand out for their superior intellectual horsepower, their impeccable sense of rationality, and their sheer wisdom. So how come they don't?

To be sure, there's no shortage of examples for highly intelligent, even erudite, leaders, at least if we are allowed to go back in history. Aside from being Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius was an influential philosopher, and one of the founders of Stoicism. Catherine the Great was known for her impeccable taste in literature and arts, and the Hermitage Museum began as her personal collection. Thomas Jefferson was not just a philosopher, but also a statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, and musician. Angela Merkel, the current Chancellor of Germany, has a PhD in Quantum Chemistry. Then there is Donald Trump, who famously claimed having "the highest" IQ score, a claim that inspired a great deal of interest.

Many people do include intelligence as one of the key ingredients of leadership potential, and higher levels of IQ have been associated with significantly higher levels of leadership performance (more so than EQ). So why isn't there a stronger relationship between intelligence and attaining leadership positions? Do we overrate the importance of IQ with regards to leadership? Are we not as good at assessing intelligence as we should be? Do we prioritize other factors, such as confidence or charisma? Should we do more to ensure that smarter people get to power, since it is apparently for everyone's benefit?

Traditionally, academic research suggested that leaders will generally be slightly more intelligent than their teams, groups, or subordinates. This makes sense: when people are much smarter than us, we start to have trouble connecting with them, following them, and even being aware of their intelligence. This logic was the basis for a famous tongue-in-cheek principle about the Nobel Prize-winning psychologists Amos Tversky, who was allegedly so smart that it was difficult for other to grasp it. Tversky's colleagues thus coined the Tversky test of intelligence: "the faster you realize that Tversky is smarter than you, the smarter you are." In this sense, we can expect the intelligence level of democratically elected leaders to be a reflection of their followers or voters, albeit amplified.

And yet, research also suggests that even laypeople are able to judge the intelligence of strangers with very limited interaction with them. This explains why assortative mating for IQ is higher than for most traits. People often complain that IQ tests don't measure intelligence, but when it comes to selecting a romantic partner they usually select someone who is as smart as they are themselves, all without the help of IQ tests, which means they must be pretty good at detecting intelligence in others. You are more likely to differ from your partner in height than in intelligence.

So, if the issue isn't an inability to detect intelligence in leaders, why don't we pick smarter leaders? There are three plausible explanations:

  1. We value other traits more: Even if we care about intelligence, we appear to care about other leadership traits more. For instance, meta-analytic studies indicate that personality is twice as predictive of leadership performance as intelligence is. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that we are picking the right personality traits. Most notably, the very traits that contribute to toxic or inept leadership performance, often help people become leaders in the first place. For example, narcissism, psychopathy, and overconfidence, all boost your chances of becoming a leader.
  2. Intelligence can be faked: Collective (aggregate) evaluations of intelligence are pretty accurate, but individually we are not as good at assessing intelligence, either in ourselves or others. On top of that, there are ample reasons and strategies for managing impressions, and people who are good at it are "smart" in a different way. For all the talks about "being authentic" at work, meta-analytic studies suggest that impression management and "faking-good" are the core ingredients of EQ or emotional intelligence. This makes sense: EQ is about having a poker face, controlling your emotions, and proactively managing your reputation so you influence others—in other words, the opposite of "just being yourself." Since EQ is positively linked to leadership, yet unrelated to IQ, it would make sense that individuals with higher EQ are better able to fake intelligence, or seem more competent than they actually are. This is particularly likely if we continue to evaluate leadership potential via unstructured, unreliable, and bias-prone methodologies, such as the typical job interview. More often than not, the people we think are competent are actually just confident; and at times those we see as charismatic are just narcissistic or psychopathic.
  3. Ruthless greed can trump intelligence: Although we tend to equate leadership with positive outcomes, the majority of leaders are not particularly competent. The reason is that too many bad people are able to get to the top of organizations (and nations) because we are fascinated and seduced by them. Of course, you need to become a leader in order to be an effective leader, but when the battle for the top is enhanced by vicious traits, Machiavellian values, and pathological or ruthless greed, it should not surprise us that smarter (decent) people are outmaneuvered by power-hungry crooks. In that sense, there is probably no bigger problem to solve than to weed out toxic and selfish individuals from the leadership contest.

In short, intelligence matters as much as we are inclined to believe, and much more than we actually appear to care for in practice, at least when we decide whether someone should be tasked with leading others, being in charge, coordinating group activity, and making decisions that have critical consequences on our wellbeing, success, and happiness. So, there's plenty of opportunity to get smarter around our leader selection.