People often have the opinion that high cognitive ability (IQ) is a requirement or predictor of leadership effectiveness. While there is some correlation between the two, there are many other traits that are much better at predicting a person’s ability to effectively lead.
In a previous article on leadership we used the analogy of a “structure” to describe leadership as the combination of character, emotional intelligence, mental intelligence, and subject-matter expertise. The combination of these four elements embodies our ability to effectively lead. We described character as the foundation of leadership and then labeled emotional intelligence as the framework of leadership. The third element of leadership is mental intelligence, which we describe as giving leadership its function.
When we say that mental or cognitive ability (often referred to as IQ) gives leadership its function, we mean that IQ is what develops our character and emotional intelligence and allows them to become more effective in our efforts to influence our constituency. Our IQ enables us to realistically assess our strengths and weaknesses and to define the best path for developing our ability to lead. It can guide us to effectively use our skills and traits in our efforts to lead.
In the book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” the author, Daniel Goleman, points out that effective leaders should have inner focus, other focus, and outer focus. Outer focus is the ability to take in a wide range of information and extrapolate potential outcomes. In other words, with outer focus you can see the bigger picture. It also allows us to integrate widely diverse information to understand the potential interaction or effect somewhere else. In this respect, outer focus is the ability to think further out in the dimension of time. Obviously, a strong IQ is an asset to possessing a strong outer focus.
Back now to the correlation between intelligence and effective leadership. Certainly we know that many great leaders have been highly intelligent. But high IQ does not make a person a leader nor is high IQ a requirement for being an effective leader.
Most likely we can all cite examples of people with a high IQ who let it interfere with their ability to lead. Some people with a high IQ can become off-putting because they might lord it over others or they might exhibit their IQ in a way that intimidates others. Our ability to lead or influence is based on building relationships. Our IQ can be a hindrance or a help to our ability to build relationships, depending on how we use it and show it. One of the highly valued character traits for leaders is humility. Humility can enable a highly-intelligent person to build strong relationships while the lack of humility can be a stumbling-block to building the relationships necessary to influence.
Despite what you might see in advertisements, experts generally agree that it is not possible to measurably change our native intelligence. However, we are able to improve the way that we use the intelligence with which we have been gifted, moving the typical measures of IQ to some extent. It should be noted that IQ is not a measure of our natural intelligence, but rather a measure of the effectiveness of the use of our intelligence. We can make our brains more efficient by exercising them, which results in developing new neural pathways. But more important for improving our ability to effectively lead, we should improve the neural pathways that would improve our ability to effectively respond and connect with our constituents.
In summary, our mental intelligence builds and utilizes our character and emotional intelligence to make us effective leaders. In some circumstances subject-matter expertise can also be a critical element of leadership. In our next leadership article we will look at expertise, when it is important, and what happens when we rely on it too much.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.