Do we need clever leaders? (pt2)

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.

In Part 1 of this series of posts, I considered how intelligent we want our leaders to be. The conclusion was that we want them to be smart, but not too smart. In part 2, I will consider whether intelligent leaders are better leaders.


Never mind what we want; what do we need?

When I find myself in the position of looking to appoint a leader within my school I am likely to pay some regard to how intelligent the candidates appear to be. I will have my own views on the importance of intelligence in leadership and, the evidence outlined in Part 1 would suggest, I need to pay regard to the perceptions of those who will be led by the individual. However, short of giving applicants an IQ test (possible, but not often used in schools), how do I tell if individuals are clever enough to lead? Furthermore, can I be sure that an intelligent leader will actually deliver the goods?

The problem with many of the studies in this field, including all those cited previously, is that they look at the perceptions of whether intelligence is important in leadership, not the reality. Determining whether intelligent leaders are more effective leaders is much more difficult, not least of all because leadership has no agreed upon definition. For this reason, the studies which are often cited to support the view that intelligence is an important trait for leadership effectiveness are often in the field of occupational performance. For example, a review of research by Schmidt and Hunter (1998) found a strong correlation (0.51) between intelligence and general job-performance, which is stronger still for complex tasks. Others have made the theoretical case that the tasks that leaders do are intellectual functions, many of which are ‘similar or identical to those we find on typical intelligence tests’ (Fiedler and Garcia, 1987). This feels all very unsatisfactory as an evidence base, appearing to say no more than ‘leaders do difficult jobs – you need to be intelligent to do difficult things – therefore leaders must be intelligent’.

There is not yet enough research into the link between intelligence and leadership effectiveness to draw any firm conclusions, but a meta-analysis published in 2004 (Judge, Colbert & Ilies) found a relatively weak correlation (0.21), suggesting that ‘the relationship between intelligence and leadership is considerably lower than previously thought’.  Interestingly, the link between personality and leadership was found to be much stronger (with a correlation of 0.48), leading the authors to suggest that “selecting leaders on the basis of personality appears to be relatively more important” (than by intelligence). However, despite the modest influence of intelligence of leadership effectiveness, an effect does appear to exist and should not be dismissed. Judge et al (2004) make this important point:

“One possible explanation for the relatively modest relationship is that traits combine multiplicatively in their effects on leadership. It is possible that leaders must possess the intelligence to make effective decisions, the dominance to convince others, the achievement motivation to persist, and multiple other traits if they are to emerge as a leader or be seen as an effective leader. If this is the case, then the relationship of any one trait with leadership is likely to be low. For example, it may be that high levels of intelligence will lead to high levels of leadership only if the individual also possesses the other traits necessary for leadership.”

As suggested previously, leadership is a loose theoretical construct and cannot be defined simply (if at all); it is therefore unlikely to be correlated with one (or even a small number) of human traits or characteristics. Even if it were, it would be hard to establish the relationship between cause and effect.

It should also be remembered that this effect is an average, and that intelligence will be more important for some leaders than others. We have already noted that intelligence is more strongly correlated with complex tasks in the workplace, and it seems likely that leaders who undertake such tasks (such as constructing a timetable) will need a higher level of intelligence. It has also been suggested that higher levels of intelligence will have a greater impact on organisational effectiveness when the leader is directive, rather than participative, as their intelligence will more directly affect task performance (Fiedler & House, 1994). Our experience as leaders might confirm this as we may feel that our impact is limited by the effectiveness of those we lead, particularly in the context of schools where leadership styles are more likely to be consultative, democratic or laissez-faire.

A last mitigating factor worth mentioning, as it is one that is particularly pertinent for schools, is the effect that workplace stress has on limiting the leader’s ability to use their intelligence to achieve organisational goals (Fiedler, 1986). Stress diverts a leader’s ‘attentional resources’ away from tasks like planning and problem solving, and towards avoidance of failure, anxiety and self-doubt. If we wish to cultivate strong leadership in schools, we should be mindful of whether leaders’ jobs are achievable.

What are the practical implications for schools?

What have we learnt about leadership that may help us as school leaders? The answer is not very much of substance. We may summarise the relevant findings from the research on the subject of intelligence and leadership as follows:

  • We like our leaders to be intelligent, but not a lot more intelligent than us;
  • Leaders of above average intelligence will do a marginally better job, on average, but this is not the most important characteristic for effective leaders;
  • Intelligence is probably more important where the job involves highly complex tasks, or where the leader will be being decisive and directive;
  • We can make intelligence work better for us if we do not put leaders under excessive stress;
  • Leaders might be most effective when they combine intelligence with a range of other aptitudes.

This ‘intelligence +’ view of leadership, whereby we want our leaders to be intelligent but also to possess this quality alongside many others, in particular certain personality traits, is not all that surprising when we consider what intelligence is. Many people have tried to define the concept of general intelligence, but an interesting definition in relation to this discussion is that “Intelligence measures an agent’s ability to achieve goals in a wide range of environments” (Legg & Hutter, 2007). Or, as the journalist David Adam put it “Using what you’ve got to get what you want” (cited in Didau, 2019). What strikes me about this catchy definition is that it only takes the addition of three words for it to be a fairly good definition of leadership… “Using what you’ve got to get others to get what you want”. The difference between the two definitions sheds light on why intelligence and leadership only correlate to an extent. The clever leader is only able to use their smarts to the extent that they can influence others. This insight corresponds to our understanding of the importance of personality in leadership, and also to the apparently stronger link between intelligence and leadership when the leader is performing a complex task themselves (i.e. not through others) or is being directive (cutting out the problem of influencing others and making a path straight from the leader’s intelligence to the desired outcome).

In Part 3 of this series, we will move beyond general notions of intelligence to consider the ‘dark matter’ of adult intelligence, which might provide the key to understanding what kind of leaders we should be looking for.


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