How Smart Should a Leader Be?
New research examines the link between leadership and intelligence.
Posted August 7, 2017
"Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it." Mark Twain
What makes a good leader?
While we can talk about the need for a leader to be strong in personality traits such as conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, or openness to experience, one trait that everybody seems to regard as important for a leader is hgh intelligence. By and large, world leaders, or for that matter, anyone in a position of authority, is expected to have above-average intelligence. But is it possible for a leader to be seen as too smart? Certainly President Barack Obama having a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from Harvard University did little to sway his most vicious critics while Abraham Lincoln's lack of formal education never prevented him from becoming one of the most revered U.S. presidents.
In fact, University of California psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton proposed an intriguing theory regarding the nonlinear relationship between perceived leadership and intelligence. According to this theory, there seems to be an optimum relationship between the level of intelligence of leaders and the intelligence of the people who are being led. In other words, given that the average IQ of any group (including potential voters) fluctuates between 100 to 110, the optimum level of a leader's intelligence will be no more than 1.2 standard deviations above the group mean (i.e., an I.Q. of around 120-125). In other words, a leader seen as being too intelligent or competent may well have difficulty convincing people of his or her leadership ability.
But why would this be? According to Simonton and other researchers working in the field, overly intelligent leaders may put off potential followers by (a) presenting “more sophisticated solutions to problems [which] may be much more difficult to understand” , (b) using “complex forms of verbal communication[and] expressive sophistication [that] may also undermine influence” , and (c) come across as too
“cerebral” making them less more likely to be seen as an "outsider" and not "one of us."
It is also important for leaders to seem sincere rather than conveying the impression that they are "dumbing down" their message to gain acceptance, something that is often difficult to project. Also, Simonton's model deals with perceived leadership rather than actual leadership ability. Given that people often have difficulty following someone who doesn't inspire confidence, this often amounts to the same thing, however.
A new research study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology takes a comprehensive look at Simonton's theory and how intelligence can play a role in effective leadership. A team of researchers led by John Antonakis of the University of Lausanne examined a sample of 379 middle-management executives from 30 countries (26.39 percent of whom were women). The participants were followed over six years and their leadership ability was determined by ratings from their subordinates as well as peers (other executives) and their supervisors. All told, this amounted to 2,905 raters (7 to 8 per executive). For the purposes of the study, the ratings focused on different leadership styles including:
- Transformational leadership - working with subordinates to identify needed , creating a vision to guide the change through inspiration, and executing the change along with committed subordinates
- Transactional leadership - using rewards and punishments to encourage compliance in followers, This form of leadership focuses more on maintaining the status quo rather than making significant changes
- Laissez-faire leadership - basically leaving subordinates to fend for themselves and giving them a free hand in deciding policies and methods.
The participating executives were also rated in terms of different aspects of instrumental leadership (goal-oriented) and expressive leadership (maintaining group cohesion by encouraging positive social relations with subordinates). The ratings were carried out with items from the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire as well as several other leadership instruments.
Participants rated for leadership also completed the Wonderlic Personnel Test (WPT), a popular group intelligence test often used to test prospective employees. Since the WPT correlates highly with the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale, WPT scores were used to estimate intelligence. Results showed a good distribution of scores with an average IQ of 111. Participants also completed the 240-item NEO-PI self-personality assessment to examine potential personality differences that might also account for differences in leadership style.
Results generally supported the initial hypothesis that perceived effectiveness as a leader had a curvilinear (inverted U) relationship with intelligence as measured by the Wonderlic test. The peak IQ at which leaders were seen as most effective was 120, slightly lower than what the researchers expected. Leaders who relied on people-focused styles also tended to have lower intelligence than leaders who were more task-oriented. On the other hand, intelligence didn't seem as much of a factor for leaders relying on laissez-faire methods. Also, as expected, personality factors such as agreeableness also played a role in perceived effectiveness as a leader though conscientiousness didn't seem that important.
While this research focused on middle-management executives, these results are especially intriguing given that intelligence has been largely ignored up to now in terms of research looking at what characterizes a good leader. As John Antonakis and his co-authors point out, highly intelligent leaders have a tendency to be seen as less effective, whether they truly are or not.
Similar research looking specifically at U.S. presidents strongly suggests that, while historian ratings of presidential performance tends to be strongly associated with estimates of their intelligence, this rarely plays a role in their actual popularity. If anything, presidents tend to be elected primarily for their charisma, whether they are an incumbent, and how the economy is doing during their tenure rather than how smart we may think they are.
Ultimately, what people look for in a leader will depend on what that leader is expected to achieve and the kind of relationship he or she has with subordinates or peers. For leaders who are expected to relate well with subordinates, having good "people skills" is often seen as more important than high intelligence. On the other hand, intelligence seems to be more important than being able to relate to people in task-oriented leaders, who need to accomplish a specific goal.
What this seems to mean is that there is no "one size fits all" definition of a good leader. It also suggests that people who seem to be likely leadership candidates due to high intelligence or the ability to interact with people may often end up failing because they don't happen to be the right candidate for the job.
So, what kind of leader would you like to follow?
Antonakis, J., House, R. J., & Simonton, D. K. (2017). Can super smart leaders suffer from too much of a good thing? The curvilinear effect of intelligence on perceived leadership behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(7), 1003-1021. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000221