Are leaders smarter than others?

Would people prefer to be ruled by someone smart or stupid? Although the question is rarely asked, it is safe to assume that most people would choose the former.

And yet, the best scientific estimate of the relationship between leadership and intelligence suggests that they overlap only by 4% (correlation of 0.21). Imagine a Venn diagram with two circles, one representing intelligence, the other representing leadership potential, and they barely touch each other. This means that a lot of smart people never step into leadership roles. Likewise, you can expect a large proportion of leaders to be quite average when it comes to intelligence. Additionally, we can expect many leaders to achieve exceptional levels of performance even if they are not particularly intelligent, at least based on academic measures of intelligence, such as IQ or tests of cognitive ability.

In theory, of course, smarter leaders should perform better. After all, intelligence is a reliable and robust predictor of learning ability, and in complex times what you know is less important than what you can learn, so there should be a clear advantage in having faster processing ability in your brain, such as sensing ambiguity quickly, turning complex problems into simple solutions, and gaining new knowledge and expertise faster and better than others. In short, it makes sense to expect leaders to stand out for their superior intellectual power, impeccable sense of rationality, and sheer wisdom. So how come they don’t?

Certainly, there is no shortage of examples of very intelligent, even learned leaders, at least if one allows oneself to go back in history. Besides being Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius was an influential philosopher and one of the founders of Stoicism. Catherine the Great was known for her impeccable taste for literature and the arts, and the Hermitage Museum began as her personal collection. Thomas Jefferson was not only a philosopher, but also a statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect and musician. Angela Merkel, the current German Chancellor, holds a doctorate in quantum chemistry. Then there’s Donald Trump, who claimed to have the “highest” IQ score, a claim that has generated a lot of interest.

Many people include intelligence as one of the key ingredients of leadership potential, and higher IQ levels have been associated with significantly higher levels of leadership performance (more than EQ). So why isn’t there a stronger relationship between intelligence and achieving leadership positions? Do we overestimate the importance of IQ in leadership? Are we not as good at evaluating intelligence as we should be? Do we prioritize other factors, such as confidence or charisma? Should we be doing more to get the smartest people to power, since this is apparently in everyone’s best interest?

Traditionally, academic research has suggested that leaders will generally be a little smarter as their teams, groups or subordinates. It makes sense: when people are much smarter than us, we start to have trouble connecting with them, following them, and even being aware of their intelligence. This logic was the basis of a famous ironic principle about Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Amos Tversky, who was allegedly so intelligent that it was difficult for others to understand him. Tversky’s colleagues thus invented the Tversky intelligence test: “The sooner you realize that Tversky is smarter than you, the smarter you are. In this sense, the level of intelligence of democratically elected leaders can be expected to reflect their supporters or voters, albeit magnified.

And yet, research also suggests that even laymen are able to judge the intelligence of strangers with very limited interaction with them. This explains why assortative mating for IQ is higher than for most traits. People often complain that IQ tests don’t measure intelligence, but when it comes to choosing a romantic partner, they usually choose someone who is as smart as themselves, all without l using IQ tests, which means they must be good enough at detecting intelligence in others. You are more likely to differ from your partner in size than in intelligence.

So if the problem isn’t an inability to detect intelligence in leaders, why don’t we choose smarter leaders? There are three plausible explanations:

  1. We value other traits more: Even though we care about intelligence, we seem to care more about other leadership traits. For example, meta-analytical studies indicate that personality is twice as predictive of leadership performance as intelligence. Unfortunately, this does not mean that we choose the right Personality traits. Most notably, the very traits that contribute to toxic or inept leadership performance often help people become leaders in the first place. For example, narcissism, psychopathy, and overconfidence all increase your chances of becoming a leader.
  2. Intelligence can be rigged: Collective (aggregate) intelligence ratings are pretty accurate, but individually we are not as good at rating intelligence, either in ourselves or in others. On top of that, there are many reasons and strategies for dealing with impressions, and people who are good at it are “smart” in a different way. For all the talk about “being authentic” at work, meta-analytic studies suggest that managing impressions and “pretending” are basic ingredients of EQ or emotional intelligence. It makes sense: EQ is all about having a poker face, controlling your emotions, and proactively managing your reputation in order to influence others – in other words, the opposite of “just being yourself”. Since EQ is positively related to leadership, but unrelated to IQ, it would make sense that people with higher EQ would be better able to false intelligence, or seem more competent than they actually are.
  3. Ruthless greed can trump intelligence: Although we tend to equate leadership with positive results, the majority of leaders are not particularly competent. The reason is that too many bad people manage to reach the top of organizations (and nations) because we are fascinated and seduced by them. Of course you must to become a leader to be an effective leader, but when the battle for the top is reinforced by vicious traits, Machiavellian values, and pathological or ruthless greed, it shouldn’t surprise us that smarter (decent) people are foiled by power-hungry crooks. In that sense, there is probably no bigger problem to solve than eliminating toxic and selfish individuals from the leadership race.

In short, intelligence matters as much as we think, and more than we really seem to care, when we are deciding whether someone should be responsible for leading others, coordinating group activity, and taking charge. decisions that have critical consequences for our well-being. , success and happiness. So, let’s be smart about our pick of leaders.


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