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Why People Don’t Follow Smart Leaders

January 18, 2018

Numerous studies and anecdotal experience would support the view that we are unlikely to respect and be loyal to leaders who lack competence. Some organisations take this to extremes by selecting leaders based purely on quite narrow measurements of intelligence. However, new research suggests that IQ alone does not a good leader make.

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This theory was first explored by Daniel Goleman’s work on Emotional Intelligence (EQ), in which he suggests that leaders must balance characteristics, such as empathy, with academic intelligence.

More recently, researchers from the University of California looked at 379 business leaders in 30 countries. The managers took IQ tests, then each was rated on leadership style and effectiveness by their co-workers. IQ positively correlated with ratings of leader effectiveness, strategy formation, vision and several other characteristics—up to a peak of around 120. Ratings then declined as IQ rose. Suggesting that really smart leaders might be less effective than those with an IQ just below 120.

Further analysis of results guards against putting an IQ limit on leaders, as the results point to situational differences. A team made up of high IQ members, tasked with analytical work will respond better to a leader with a higher IQ, whereas a group of creatives will value broader leadership qualities such as charisma, vision and strong interpersonal skills.

This is just one of a number of research programmes that is beginning to challenge our conventional view of intelligence. Based in part on the fact that many of our most impressive leaders and entrepreneurs didn’t perform well in education.

As the UK must reposition itself on the global stage, against the academic powerhouses of Asia, perhaps we need to better understand what style of intelligence made the Beatles, London Fashion and Monty Python along with Oxford and Cambridge. Sir Ken Robinson’s excellent new book The Element, explores what intelligence actually is, noting amongst other things, that the original IQ test was established to detect learning disabilities not intelligence!

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