Very intelligent people make less effective leaders, according to their peers and subordinates

By Alex Fradera

Highly intelligent people tend to make good progress in the workplace and are seen as fit for leadership roles: overall, smarter is usually associated with success. But if you examine the situation more closely, as does new research in the Journal of Applied Psychology, you find evidence that too much intelligence can harm leadership effectiveness. Too clever for your own good? Let’s look at the research.

John Antonakis at the University of Lausanne and colleagues recruited 379 mid-level leaders (27 per cent women, average age 38) at private companies in 30 mainly European countries, working in areas ranging from banking and telecoms to hospitality and retail. Each participant completed a personality questionnaire and a well-validated measure of intelligence, the Wonderlic Personnel Test. Their average IQ was 111 (the average for the general population is 100), with a fairly even spread of scores.

The researchers also had access to third-party ratings of the participants’ leadership performance from eight people: either peers or subordinates of the leader, who rated them on the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire, which explores the degree to which the leader demonstrates various leadership styles, some known to be useful (e.g. a “transformational style” which inspires, or an “instrumental” style that removes stumbling blocks), others detrimental (e.g. a passive, hands-off style).

Overall, women tended to employ better leadership styles, and to a lesser extent so did older leaders, but the bulk of the variance was accounted for by personality and intelligence. Like so much previous work, intelligence showed a positive linear relationship with leadership effectiveness, but this association flattened out and then reversed at an IQ of about 120. For leaders with higher intelligence than this, their scores in transformational and instrumental leadership were lower, on average, than less smart leaders; and beyond an IQ of 128, the association with less effective leadership was clear and statistically significant.

Of note is that Antonakis’ team also predicted that very high intelligence would correlate not only with less use of effective leadership methods, but also greater use of harmful leadership styles (such as laissez-faire leadership). The data didn’t bear this out. Very smart leaders weren’t falling prey to bad approaches, they were struggling to use the good ones.

This is one of several recent psychological studies investigating how there can be “too much of a good thing”. For leaders, this can apply to political skills and charisma. Intelligence is perhaps more surprising, given its well-established association with positive outcomes. The new findings can’t tell us why very smart people seem to make poorer leaders, but it’s possible leaders who stand intellectually apart and are prone to complex language are less inspiring, and they may find it difficult to anticipate what will prove a challenge to others, and how to reduce tasks to an appropriate level of simplicity.

We must remember, however, that the issue isn’t whether, on balance, intelligence benefits leadership – it does – but whether it does so at every level of increasing intelligence. Antonakis’ team also speculate that the levels at which a leader’s intelligence delivers diminishing or reversing returns may depend on the relative intelligence of their team members, so these results don’t necessarily tell us the optimal IQ for all leaders. But they do suggest that in a social world, even highly advantageous traits can come with some drawbacks. And they also give defensive managers an excuse for a poor performance review: “I’m too clever for these guys!”

Can super smart leaders suffer from too much of a good thing? The curvilinear effect of intelligence on perceived leadership behavior

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

30 thoughts on “Very intelligent people make less effective leaders, according to their peers and subordinates”

  1. Confirmation bias strikes again!!! 🙂 My husband and I got together because despite the age gap of 28 years, we found an intellectual match that we had not experienced in previous relationships. Both of us have had interesting and varied careers, shunning conventional occupations and routes to academic success. Neither of us has ever ‘fitted -in’ to the conventional workplace and have always been ‘loners’, never really ‘belonging’ socially, always ‘different’. This manifests itself in us having been labelled as ‘disruptive’ to the ‘status quo’ for employers. Things that seem obvious to us, are strangely, not obvious to others. From mutual discussions, a pattern of constant questioning, critical thought and testing of ‘accepted knowledge’ and accepted ways of doing things in the workplace has crippled our success in conventional terms of career progression and even during our degrees. We have both been ‘let go’ from several employers because we have been ‘whistle blowers’ or have questioned the organisational ‘ethos’ or methods and knowledge base of our employers and lecturers. Having just graduated in psychology at the age of 51, I now know that I can never ever work for anyone else again. This research confirms for me why I am not a good leader, despite very much wishing to be an effective agent for change. I find it difficult to share with others who seemingly can’t even begin to grasp what I am going on about, or who can’t seem to make necessary links between concepts necessary to effect behaviour change or advance the knowledge base. It has taken me all my life to discover that I possess intelligence not shared universally and to acknowledge this to myself. Not only am I not a good leader, I am too reticent in promoting myself and recognising value in my ideas. I much prefer to be ‘the wind beneath the wings’ of others…This is reflected in the things I value, like ‘non- consumption’, minimalism, ‘not following the crowd’ and arguing about and testing everything before officially ‘stamping approval’ or delaying judgement until more information becomes available. A leader is often expected to KNOW what to do, to obey unquestioningly, placing faith in the advice of others and to act decisively. I think highly intelligent people have so many variables interacting with each other in permutation to process, that being decisive is either very difficult OR is not supported by others who do not have access to as many variables (knowledge and experience).

    1. Hi appliedpsychologysolutions,

      Thanks for the comment. One of the things I found interesting about workplace psychology is clarifying the idea that leadership is not necessarily the highest role towards which all of us should strive, but a particular role that involves an array of skills that is more suited to some than others. A great thinker can achieve more in the world than many a leader, through their ideas being picked up and implemented by others. Very interesting to hear your story. Good luck for the future.

      1. I strongly think and feel that a person striving to explain themselves, and provide information on a professional site, that may just possibly help broaden others understanding of a piece of work, fully deserves NOT to be insulted! That is not a professional way to behave in my professional and personal opinion. It is perfectly valid to raise specific points and address them. It is extremely unprofessional to attack the writer personally.

  2. “Overall, women tended to employ better leadership skills”?

    What a crock; although, if the same were said about men, this article would be considered hate speech in Canada.

    1. Hi Jerry,
      With nothing backing up your first assertion, and your second being equally unsupported and also a non sequiteur, would you care to follow up and add some value?

    2. Women typically manage via committee. They are good at getting people to buy into their ideas since it discussed and agreed upon before implemented. This is an easy way to get work done whereas men are more likely to implement changes without seeking agreement. The expectation is that everyone will fall in line because of the leaders position.

      1. And they also agree via committee who they like and dislike, we like him , we hate her, as would sheep or lemmings agree to a consensus.

  3. “Leadership” can be seen as distinct from “Management”. Appliedpsychologysolutions’ reply (13.11.17) resonated with me. I profit professionally and personally in my job as a Social Worker in a community mental health team from being well managed, here defined in my own terms, which include being empowered, supported, validated, educated, listened to and challenged in my day-to-day practice. The same values underpin my therapeutic relationship with clients.

    To me, a Leader in my field is someone who sees themselves too often as an arbiter of the “truth” or the “right” way to do things and feels empowered by their job title and inflated ego to exercise authority over their juniors, although this may be something of a caricature. I share some of the character traits mentioned and have an aversion to being lead, particularly by people whose definition, or interpretation, of the core task I perceive to be at odds with my own. Too often Leaders are appointed and tasked with a subordinate aim e.g. balance the books, rather than appointing Managers, who are more likely to be more focused on supporting their team to achieve the aims of the core task and less on political or financial objectives.

    In my opinion, intelligence of a certain level is necessary for a manager to be able to manage effectively given the complexity of the task and the nuances of the values, which underpin it, but the possession of, perhaps less easily definable, “people skills” are a better indicator of efficacy in mine and allied (people-centred) professions.

    1. The idea of leadership involving transformational and transactional components is a true and well-validated one. Check out this slide (disclosure: I used to work for the company who developed this model and have since done freelance work for them)

      You can see in this model, every stage of delivering work (at every scale, so doing a team project or an organisational initiative) involves both transformational and transactional elements, and you need people performing all these activities to generate success.

  4. Thanks, resonates with my experience. I would live your recommendation on how to deal with a challenge I have. I am a transformation leader ( as peer feedback from many peers and other leaders. Sometime I get feedback that I am too ‘directive’ and I notice it is mainly in situations under pressure where the people around have significantly less experience (or knowledge). More democratic leaders would then apply consensus…. however in the transformation role this has high risk of derailing from the ‘obvious’ better path (which by people around with ‘less intelligence or know how may not be so obvious) Do you have proposals or reference to examples how to deal with such situations?

    1. ….worth noticing that I recognize that ‘loosing’ the crowd in favour of ‘right direction’ is also not desirable…hence the challenge 🙂

    2. I think the behaviours associated with the instrumental leadership style might be a good place to take a look. I’m not massively familiar with it, but this article seems to be a fairly good overview:—instrumental-leadership.pdf

      Another thing might be to examine the conundrum you’ve posed: either press ahead and get the right solution, or consult and also generate a high risk of a poorer outcome. Could you imagine any other possibilities?

  5. Does IQ correlate to better outcomes? I hadn’t thought so. The pack quickly identifies the outliers and savages them as a warning to others that straying from the group’s core characteristics is not a good choice.

    1. Wow, yes I agree with this hypothesis of yours Bill. Why is it that yes, leaders are often very smart, but in my experience they are also nasty, rude, arrogant, stuck up, condescending and generally way over payed while being real a’holes as well. A really nice guy I knew once told me that nice guys finish last for a reason.

  6. Thanks for sharing, will have a look. Also interesting reflection on group direction. Experience of group may play a role here. So experience and expertise in my mind would have a bigger impact than I indeed

  7. Excellent read!—instrumental-leadership.pdf
    Fully recognized, as we have managed to put the ‘nuts & bolts’ in place for some part of the strategic vision and are now working on others. It becomes apparent that some experts in the ‘old’ business manage to transfer but others struggle to grasp how to do the ‘new’ and conflict occurs….also appreciate the comment on ‘are there other ways around’ and I see how this is also part of instrumental leadership to help people understand and move on.

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