Do we need clever leaders? (pt3)

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 2 of this series of posts, I considered how intelligent we need our leaders to be. The conclusion was that intelligence is loosely correlated with leadership competence, and might need to be possessed in combination with other aptitudes. But is there more to intelligence than we commonly believe? In this final post in the series, I will consider the ‘dark matter’ of a leader’s intelligence.


If, as I do, you remain dissatisfied with the usefulness of the research in to intelligence as it pertains to leadership, perhaps it is because we have failed to move beyond a general view of intelligence. Might there be something of more substance if we dig a little deeper?

David Didau, in his 2019 book ‘Making Kids Cleverer’, breaks down the concept of intelligence in an attempt to establish whether it is something we can actually improve. He uses a definition of intelligence given by the researcher James Flynn, who breaks intelligence down in to the following factors:

  • Mental acuity – the ability to come up with solutions to problems about which we have no prior knowledge.
  • Speed of information processing – how quickly we assimilate new data.
  • Habits of mind – the ways in which we are accustomed to using our minds.
  • Attitudes – how the society in which we live tends to view and think about the world.
  • Memory – our ability to retrieve information when it will be useful.
  • Knowledge and information – the more you know, the more you can think about.

The first two (mental acuity and speed of information processing), are ‘probably not amenable to being improved through social or educational intervention. That is to say, ‘what you’ve got is all you’ll ever have’. Social attitudes, on the other hand, may change but tend to do so slowly and this is not within the control of the individual. Habits of mind is cited as an aspect of intelligence that can be cultivated. The example given is the improvements in completing a cryptic crossword which will be gained by learning the patterns and hidden rules which are inherent in the task. However, it is the final two features of intelligence which Didau points to as the most important in making kids cleverer; the role of memory and the importance of expanding the quality and quantity of knowledge held in long term memory. He puts it thus:

“The quantity and quality of what children know is, I believe, the most important individual difference between them. Those who know more are, on average, cleverer than those who know less. Although we might perceive some children to be more ‘able’ than others, this is unimportant because there’s not really anything we can do about it. We can, however, do an awful lot about developing the quantity and quality of what children know.”

Didau’s claims are supported by the work of psychologist Richard Cattell who, in the 1940s, proposed that intelligence should be separated in to fluid and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the reasoning power we use to solve problems which do not require prior knowledge (think of the sort of questions you would typically see on an IQ test – spatial awareness, logic) and is associated with concepts of working memory and task-focus. Crystallized intelligence is our ability to retrieve knowledge from long-term memory to inform our thinking, giving us something to think about. The significance of these concepts of intelligence is that fluid intelligence appears to be relatively fixed over time, and resistant to change, whereas crystallized intelligence is eminently malleable. In short, if we want to become cleverer then our best bet is to improve the quantity and quality of what we know.

In terms of making kids (or anyone we can presume) cleverer, Didau summarises his position thus:

  1. Knowledge is what we think both with and about.
  2. We cannot think with or about something we don’t know.
  3. The more we know about something, the more sophisticated our thinking.

If correct, we may conclude from Didau’s analysis that the way to become cleverer is to know more. Didau’s manifesto is to make kids generally cleverer by knowing generally more stuff (although he argues it needs to be the right stuff).

My concern, however, is not to breed generally cleverer leaders but to develop specifically clever leaders, in other words leaders who can think in more sophisticated ways about the actual challenges they face. To consider how this should be achieved, we need to move from a notion of general intelligence (g) to one of domain-specific intelligence (ds).

The “dark matter” of adult intelligence

It is a sad fact that our physical peak comes so early in life; around our mid-twenties. Health is wasted on the young. After that point it is all downhill. The same can be said of intelligence, according to the data we have at least. Repeated tests demonstrate that the middle-aged are, on average, less intelligent than young adults. Folk psychology appears to support these findings. We all know that our minds slow down, particularly in old age, and we start to forget what we came in to a room for. We also hear of the great break-throughs made by scientists and mathematicians barely out of university. The young mind seems more agile and prone to take intuitive leaps.

But consider for a moment who you would rather have leading your school – someone in their twenties or fifties? Whilst we may value the energy, limited commitments and fierce ambition of the former, most of us would choose the wisdom and accumulated expertise of the latter. This is because we instinctively know that leading a large organisation is complex and that it requires a great deal of knowledge; and not the type you get from reading a book. We don’t need a headteacher with general knowledge, either. We’re not recruiting them to our pub quiz team. The knowledge we know our school leaders will need is occupationally specific; an understanding of pedagogy, safeguarding children, behaviour management, the examination system, employment law, children’s mental health, and so on. Are we to accept that older leaders are less intelligent, but compensate for this with their accumulated knowledge? To many people this doesn’t feel right. If a leader is making better decisions, navigating through challenging problems more successfully and judging situations with greater skill, should we not consider them to be smarter than the novice leader?

To reconcile the apparent contradiction between what IQ tests tell us about intelligence fading with age, and what we observe in occupational settings as leaders get older and wiser, we might question whether the measures we are using fail to value the things that make us smarter as we move through adulthood – “domains that are not assessed by traditional measures” (Ackerman, 2000). Ackerman coins the term ‘dark matter’ to describe these so-far undiscovered domains, taking the term from the scientific hypothesis that a significant amount of the matter in the known universe is hidden to us, but has profound effects on the matter which we can observe. He hypothesises that the nature of the ‘dark matter’ of intelligence is domain-specific knowledge (which he defines as including knowledge associated with occupations), which differs from the “kinds of general cultural knowledge assessed in traditional one-to-one IQ tests”.

Ackerman proposes that “if adults are given credit for what they know… it will be possible to better assess individual differences in intelligence from a real-world perspective (e.g. improving prediction of academic occupational success”. Like Didau after him, and Cattell before him, Ackerman calls for greater attention to be paid to the role of knowledge in conceptions of intelligence. In doing so, we may find that intelligence does not, in fact, deteriorate throughout adulthood but instead it changes in its nature, becoming more about knowledge possessed than the capacity to manipulate knowledge, more specific than general, and with greater real-world rather than abstract application.

Intelligence with substance

If our traditional measures of general intelligence under-estimate the role that domain-specific knowledge plays in adult intelligence, perhaps there is a greater correlation between intelligence and leadership than we have been able to establish thus far. A measure of domain-specific intelligence (ds), rather than general intelligence (g) measures which favour the fluid aspects of intelligence, might indicate that intelligence plays a significant role in leadership and occupational success. Ackerman puts it well when he states:

“many intellectually demanding tasks in the real world cannot be accomplished without a vast repertoire of declarative knowledge and procedural skills. The brightest (in terms of IQ) novice would not be expected to fare well when performing cardiovascular surgery in comparison to the middle-aged expert, just as the best entering college student cannot be expected to deliver a flawless doctoral thesis defense, in comparison to the same student after several years of academic study and empirical research experience. In this view, knowledge does not compensate for a declining adult intelligence; it is intelligence!”

Further research is needed before we over-turn over a century of tradition around intelligence testing, and it will be a long time before we can hope to know whether a model which values domain-specific intelligence correlates better with leadership effectiveness than the general intelligence model. My guess is that it would, but in the meantime I see no harm in valuing domain-specific knowledge, the crystallized aspect of intelligence that we know to be malleable, over fluid intelligence, which is not.

Whilst we might desire generally intelligent leaders in our schools, we certainly need knowledgeable ones. The substance of intelligence is what counts – the domain-specific knowledge which enables us to handle complexity. Not only is crystallized intelligence importance, but it is the only part which is responsive to our efforts to improve it. We are not all born Einsteins, but we can become better leaders by developing the aspect of intelligence which is within out control. After all, those we lead don’t want us to be geniuses, they just want us to know what we are talking about.

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