Do we need clever leaders? (pt1)

In the lead up to my session at ResearchED Rugby on 15th June, I am serialising a chapter from my upcoming book on school leadership. If you want to find out more, come along.

Part 1: Do we want our leaders to be clever?

“Who’s the more foolish, the fool, or the fool who follows him?”
Obi Wan Kenobi, Start Wars: A New Hope (1977)

We like our leaders to be smart. After all, we are (actually or metaphorically) following them in to battle. We need to be confident that they have thought this through; that they are one step ahead of us, and of the other army’s Commander. As Obi Wan implies, only the foolish follow a fool.

When we are asked to consider the traits a leader must possess, intelligence repeatedly comes out on top. In a study by Lord, Foti and De Vader (1984), subjects were asked which of a list of 59 characteristics (such as honesty, charisma and kindness) should be possessed by leaders. Intelligence not only emerged as the most defining characteristic of a leader, but the only attribute that must be possessed by all leaders.

Reviews of the literature in the field also support this finding: intelligence is inextricably linked in our minds with strong leadership. A meta-analysis (review of numerous studies on this topic) carried out by Lord, De Vader and Alliger (1986) found intelligence to be correlated more strongly with leadership than five other key traits: masculinity-femininity, adjustment, dominance, extroversion-introversion and conservatism (a correlation of 0.50 for those who like the numbers).

Intelligence and the electorate

Reading through the research on peoples’ perceptions of leaders, I am particularly struck by two things. Firstly, the fact that two researchers called Lord and De Vader worked together in the year that Return of the Jedi was released! Secondly, and probably more pertinent to the topic of this blog, an interesting Gallup Poll result from the 2000 presidential election in which 90% of Americans agreed that ‘understanding complex issues’ was ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important in determining which candidate they would vote for. Now, in the light of recent events in American politics, either views about the importance of Presidents being intelligent have changed or US voters have a different view of Trump’s IQ than I do. It turns out that both are true. In a 2018 Gallup Poll, 58% of Americans characterised President Trump as intelligent. There are limited historic comparisons for this data, but Gallup did ask a similar question in the 1990s for President Clinton and H.W. Bush, who both scored higher. So, although Trump’s IQ is not rated as highly as some other past Presidents, a majority of the American public believe he’s a clever guy.

Do intelligent Presidents make the best Presidents? In 2006, psychologist Dean Keith Simonton (2012) tried to answer this question by estimating the IQ of the first 42 Presidents using data which is known to correlate, such as college entrance scores, level of education and occupation. He then compared these estimates to a measure of ‘presidential greatness’ based on multiple ratings of leadership ability and found that the smarter the President, the better their ranking as a leader*. It would appear then that the cleverest Presidents are also considered to be the best Presidents. However, this research is retrospective; what we do not know is whether intelligence played a part in the election of these Presidents in the first place. Given the estimates of IQ in the study ranged from 118 (around the average for a college graduate) to 165 (well beyond genius), we can surmise that above-average intelligence either helped them get elected or was valued by the electorate, or both.

Smart, but not too smart

Think about your boss. And the boss above them. How intelligent are they?

We’ve established that we like our leaders to be clever, but how clever? The answer may be ‘just a bit cleverer than us’. If we perceive ourselves to be more intelligent than those in charge, we might find ourselves questioning their decisions and wondering if we might actually do a better job. Once we question a leader’s credibility we are less likely to be influenced by them, and might even openly question their decisions. However, if our boss is operating at an intellectual level way above our heads other problems may occur. We might feel intimidated by them, fail to make a social connection or simply not understand anything they are saying. The stereotype of the cold, isolated genius has some basis in truth; we probably all know someone who we class as super-intelligent, but appears to be on another planet. There appears to be a ‘Goldilocks’ zone’ for intelligence, with our superiors being not too smart, but smart enough.

In a paper titled ‘Can Super Smart Leaders Suffer From Too Much of a Good Thing’, John Antonakis, Robert J. House and Dean Keith Simonton (2017) set out to test four factors which affect how intelligent we might want our leaders to be:

1. Diminishing returns on intelligence: The smarter a leader is, ‘the more this individual will be perceived as an optimal problem solver by others’, however this advantage lessens as intelligence increases beyond a certain point.

2. Comprehension factor: ‘Too large a gap between the intellectual inferiors and the leader reduces the leader’s ability to influence because intellectual inferiors may not comprehend the message or the solutions proposed by the leader’.

3. Criticism factor: ‘A leader of a group must have a sufficient level of intelligence so as not to be challenged by others who could appear to be more competent’. There is a trade-off between this and the previous factor: the leader needs to be sufficiently intelligent to avoid challenge, but not so intelligent that they leave others confused.

4. Intellectual stratification: The optimal level of intelligence will be related to ‘the average intelligence of the group being led’.

Antonakis et al conclude (at the risk of over-simplifying) that leaders should have above average intelligence and an IQ of around 18 points above the mean of the group being led. They also assert that if the group’s emphasis is more on social-emotional goals, then the IQ gap should be smaller as it is more important that the leader is accepted as ‘one of the team’. However, if the group’s emphasis is more task–oriented then the IQ gap should be larger as this will mean greater confidence in the leader to solve complex problems.

Evidence appears to support anecdote when it comes to how intelligent we want our leaders to be; smart, but not too smart. To return to our Presidential example, whilst the retrospective view confirms that the more intelligent the President, the more successful we deem they were, when it comes to electing Presidents, the American public don’t usually go for the smartest (Schmidt and Hunter, 1998). If we were cynical we might suggest that we prefer leaders who we can relate to over those who might be the most effective at doing the job. Gibb (1969) puts this sentiment well:

“The evidence suggests that every increment of intelligence means wiser government, but that the crowd prefers to be ill-governed by people it can understand.”


* To save you looking it up, the three smartest Presidents were found to be John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and John F. Kennedy.

In Part 2 I will consider not whether we want our leaders to be intelligent, but whether they need to be.



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