Can Leaders Be Too Smart? - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #696

Can Leaders Be Too Smart?

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Can leaders be too smart? A recent study offers a surprising answer: up to a certain point, the smarter you are, the more effective you are as a leader. But being too smart can actually reduce how effective you are perceived— in large part because you lose touch with your subordinates. 


In general, previous research shows a linear relationship between intelligence and perceived leadership effectiveness, with the line heading steadily northeast (the more intelligent, the higher your actual and perceived leadership capabilities). Intuitively, this would seem to make sense: you need smart people to make the right decisions, to resolve problems or even to gather and inspire the best collaborators and team members. 

However, does the old adage that says you can have too much of a good thing apply even to intelligence? It seems so, according to research from John Antonakis of the University of Lausanne, Robert House of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Dean Keith Simonton from the University of California, Davis.

Over a period of six years, the researchers collected data on the effectiveness of 379 leaders in 30 countries. The data was based on questionnaires in which subordinates, some peers and a supervisor rated each leader on a variety of leadership effectiveness criteria, covering different types of leadership. For example, raters gave their assessment of their leaders’ instrumental (or more task-oriented) leadership capabilities, such as environmental monitoring and strategy formulation and implementation or transformational (or more social-emotional) leadership capabilities such as inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration. 

The data amassed by the research team on these leaders also contained information (through a 240-question self-personality test sent to the leaders) on each leader’s personality traits, including neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, and well demographic information (including gender and age, which the researchers used as a proxy for experience). Leaders were given an IQ test to take as well under supervised conditions.

Statistical modelling comparing and correlating this data to the leader’s IQ, based on the respected Wonderlic Personnel Test, revealed the answer: Yes, when it comes to perceived leadership effectiveness, too much of a good thing is not necessarily ‘wonderful’ (as the legendary Mae West once declared with respect to enjoying abundance an excess in life). 

Specifically, the research showed that perceived leadership effectiveness climbed steadily with increasing intelligence, until the leaders’ IQ reached 120. Beyond that threshold, perceived leadership effectiveness slowly then more quickly decreased as the leaders’ IQ increased. The result, in other words, was not the positive linear relationship assumed from previous research, but rather a curvilinear inverted-U relationship.

This research proves empirically what Professor Simonton had theorized in 1985 when he introduced four factors determining the impact of intelligence on leadership:

  1. Intellectual Superiority
  2. Comprehension factor
  3. Criticism factor
  4. Intellectual stratification

Intellectual superiority gives leaders the ability to solve problems, make decisions and essentially have the smarts to be good leaders. However, the comprehension factor can undermine their effectiveness: they are so much smarter that those they lead that they have trouble communicating with their subordinates. The criticism factor is another variable: subordinates must not come to wonder if other leaders (who might be criticizing their own leaders) are not smarter. Finally, intellectual stratification relates to the average intelligence of the groups for which the leaders are responsible: the higher the average intelligence of a group, the higher the optimal intelligence of the leader.

Bearning in mind these factors, Simonton concluded that the best leaders will be intelligent enough to make good decisions, fulfil their responsibilities and demonstrate their intelligence vis-à-vis other leaders in the group, but not so intelligent that they don’t connect with their people (especially if the group’s average intelligence is substantially lower). In other words, some leaders might be too smart for their good.


Recently, several leadership observers and commentators have started to question whether high intelligence is correlated to better leadership. This research should not be misconstrued as a new arrow for this argument’s quiver. First, the study focuses on subjective perceptions of leadership, not necessarily objective outcomes. Thus, leaders with great social-emotional skills are more likely to receive higher ratings. 

In addition, the leaders in the study were mid-level leaders and not CEOs. Unlike mid-level leaders, effective task-oriented leadership may be more important for CEO effectiveness than social-emotional skills. For instance, research shows that intelligence matters much for objective leadership performance (e.g., especially for strategic-oriented functions like at top levels of leadership like CEOs). 

Beyond these caveats, however, the research did show that very high-intelligence leaders can lose touch with their subordinates, and thus undermine their perceived leadership effectiveness; this issue might even affect the leader's actual effectiveness (though research has not investigated this possibility yet). 

The bottom line is that intelligence counts. High IQ helps leaders be better leaders. What the study shows is that at very or extremely high levels, IQ is not the same differentiator, and might in fact backfire. In other words, you have to be smart to be a leader, but you don’t have to be Albert Einstein.

One interesting lesson from the research is also the wildcard of subjective leadership evaluation. Perception is vitally important for leadership: how a leader appears to subordinates strongly influences his or her perceived effectiveness. However, perception can also emphasize certain skills over others. The task-oriented skills required for CEO responsibilities may be undervalued at the lower levels. Organizations involved in succession planning may want to keep this ‘undervaluation’ in mind as they consider the best candidates for future top-level positions.



Can Super Smart Leaders Suffer From Too Much of a Good Thing? The Curvilinear Effect of Intelligence on Perceived Leadership Behavior. John Antonakis, Robert & Dean Keith Simonton. Journal of Applied Psychology (July 2017). 

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Idea conceived

July 6, 2017

Idea posted

Mar 2018
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