Given a choice between a leader who is dumb and a leader who is smart, most of us would choose the smart one. A smart leader will be able to draw on more knowledge, make better decisions, and find solutions to the group’s more difficult challenges. What if we had a choice between smart and smarter? Or if we could choose between smarter and smartest? Easy question, you may say, always pick the smartest available person available to lead us.
A research paper in the July issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology titled Can super smart leaders suffer from too much of a good thing? The curvilinear effect of intelligence on perceived leadership behavior finds that above an IQ of 120, perceptions of leaders follow an inverted U function. In short, this means that intelligence generally correlates with effectiveness as a leader, but after a certain level of IQ, peoples’ perception of a leader’s effectiveness falls. We can surmise that when peoples’ perception of a leader’s effectiveness erodes, their actual ability to lead people soon falls.
The paper does not explore the limitations of IQ as a full indicator of practical intelligence. The research paper does not speculate on the reasons for this phenomenon. Taking a lean perspective, we know that even the fastest and best processes become less effective due to various losses and wastes. Here are the seven losses that surface when we sub-optimize our leaders for high IQ.
1. Lack of self-awareness. Promoters of so-called emotional intelligence (EI), which is more accurately described as a set of skills and abilities, also found that above a certain level there is little or no correlation between IQ and levels of professional success, and that EI was the difference-making factor. EI is essentially self-awareness, the ability to recognize the emotions of others, and adapt actions accordingly.
2. Lack of humility. Super intelligent people who are delighted by their own smarts may come across as braggarts, self-aggrandizing or prideful. Leaders who lack humility and the ability to share credit can de-motivate their team, regardless of their IQ level.
3. Communication losses. The reading level for the average American is at the 7th or 8th grade level. If a leader chooses to use their additional 5-10 years of education, knowledge and vocabulary when communicating with people in the organization, those people may not understand the leader. It is not surprising that a leader who is hard to understand would be perceived as less effective.
4. Excess sophistication. Sometimes issues are complex and require sophisticated thinking and complex solution. Even for simple problems, high-IQ minds may know about and therefore be attracted to more sophisticated solutions. Even when a high IQ person arrives at a simple solution, it may be presented in ways more sophisticated and difficult to understand for the rank and file. These things make good ideas harder to communicate, understand and execute.
5. Lack of empathy. Through a combination of low emotional awareness, gaps in communication, the complexity of ideas, impatience with slower thinkers, a leader can appear distant, uncaring or even callous. People have a basic need to feel safe, and a leader who is callous or lacks empathy rarely does not provide this.
6. Not bing relatable. A certain amount of leadership is selling. Leaders must sell people on their vision for a positive future and the specific steps to get there. People buy from people who are like themselves and make them feel comfortable. This is basic human nature and sales training 101. A leader who suffers the five losses above will struggle to bond with people, develop rapport, build trust and be relatable enough to secure followers.
7. Incongruity. When we experience something other than what we expect, it is a surprise. When a leader is super smart, scoring 20 or 30 points above the average, we expect them to have knowledge and abilities far above our own. As a result, our expectations from these super smart leaders may be unreasonably high. “If you’re sooo smart, how come..?” There is only so much one person can do. If a person of a 160 IQ can’t influence others to execute their brilliant ideas, those 40 points above 120 are practically wasted. When the super smart fall short of our supercharged expectations, perceptions of them follow the inverse-U curve downward.
The pillars of respect for humanity and continuous improvement are needed as a pair to keep an organization constantly adapting, innovating, and growing long-term. We need great ideas and people with IQs to help us think them. We also need inspiration, individual recognition and encouragement in the face of challenges. High IQ is necessary for but not sufficient for success of leaders.