The leadership IQ dilemma: when super smart people are perceived as ineffective leaders

General intelligence is an essential characteristic for good leadership. Research by John Antonakis and colleagues on the relationship between IQ and perceptions of effective leadership reveals that a leader’s optimal IQ level depends on the average intelligence of the group being led; too high or too low leader IQ may spell disaster for the leaders.

5 min read 

AntonakisJohn Antonakis is a professor of Organizational Behavior. His research is currently focused on leadership development, power, personality, and causal analysis.

General intelligence has been shown to enhance people’s ability to acquire expertise, solve problems, and communicate thoughts and ideas. It is no surprise therefore, that IQ has been linked to leadership effectiveness. And, if intelligent leaders are better leaders, it seems sensible to assume that more intelligence means better leadership.

However, for people with a super high IQ, who harbor ambitions of being a successful leader, in business or otherwise, recently published research by academics John Antonakis (HEC Lausanne, University of Lausanne), Robert House (Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania) and Dean Keith Simonton (University of California, Davis), offers some potentially discouraging news.

The researchers suggest that there is an optimal IQ level associated with ‘perceived’ leadership effectiveness; that is, whether those who are led by the leader think that the leader is effective. According to the researchers, the optimal point of leader intelligence—for leading a group of people of average intelligence having about 100 IQ points—is about 118 IQ points. This level is on the smart side, but certainly not as high as ‘super smart’ levels (think theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper in US sitcom The Big Bang Theory). The higher (or lower) a person’s IQ is from that optimal score the less effective the leader is seen by others. That is a problem for very smart leaders, given that becoming (or even appearing) less smart is unlikely to be a practical option.

It is not all bad news, though. Importantly, the research is primarily based on perceptions of leadership behavior as rated by others, rather than objective measures of leadership outcomes. Being super smart may be less of an issue if leaders are predominately task-focused, and where meeting the social and emotional needs of others is less important.

A theory that waited more than 30 years to be tested

In 1985, co-author Simonton wrote a theory on the importance of intelligence for leadership, arguing for a non-linear, inverted U-shaped relation of intelligence to leadership perceptions. Simonton illustrated his argument for a nonlinear (or curvilinear) relationship considering four important parameters. Intellectual superiority suggests that smarter people are better problem solvers. However, the comprehension factor matters also: too large an intelligence gap between leader and followers impairs leadership effectiveness. Next is the criticism factor: intellectually superior rivals may undermine the leader. Finally, intellectual stratification suggests that, depending on the type and complexity of work, co-worker groups have different average levels of intelligence; the higher the average intelligence of the group, the higher the optimal intelligence of the leader.

Putting all the above together suggests that the leader must be smart enough to lead the group and keep rivals at bay—but not be too smart. A leader who appears too intellectual, who presents overly sophisticated solutions to problems, or uses complex, difficult to understand forms of communication, might seem unrepresentative of the group. Thus, a complete theory of where the optimal IQ level of leadership should be placed must consider these factors, as well as whether the leader has more of a task or relationship-focused job.

What the authors found

The author team tested Simonton’s theory using data from 379 leaders in seven multinational firms. Subordinates, peers and supervisors provided ratings for leadership effectiveness. The authors measured the leaders’ intelligence and also accounted for the effects of personality (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience) gender as well as age, which is a good proxy for experience.

For intelligence the results were a resounding endorsement for the idea that the optimal level depends on circumstances: too high or too low from the optimal can have a negative impact on perceived leadership effectiveness.

It would be wrong to assume that greater intelligence necessarily reduces actual leadership effectiveness. Recall, the research focused on perceived leadership effectiveness rather than objective outcomes. And if a leader’s success is defined by goals that are highly task dependent, as may be more likely at CEO level, above optimal IQ merely has less of a beneficial impact, rather than a negative effect. For instance, other researchers have found that CEOs are, in general, very smart individuals, and are overrepresented in the top 1% of intelligence.

The research findings suggest that the role of individual differences in determining leadership effectiveness merits further consideration, and reestablishes the important link between IQ and leadership. In addition, the evidence presents an interesting leadership selection dilemma. Further down the executive hierarchy attention to the socio-emotional needs of followers is likely to be beneficial to career progression. Yet existing research suggests that a greater degree of task oriented activity is required at CEO level. If selection and advancement to senior levels partly depends on the effectiveness perceptions and ratings of subordinates and peers, will that count against those individuals with above “optimal” IQs that objectively might perform well in task oriented senior roles?

As for the super smart Sheldon Coopers of this world, they can still be seen as effective leaders – they just need to find some almost-as-smart-people to lead.

Read the original research paper (PDF/abstract on the editor’s website): Antonakis, J., House, R. J., & Simonton, D. K. (2017). Journal of Applied Psychology. Can super smart leaders suffer from too much of a good thing? The curvilinear effect of intelligence on perceived leadership behavior .

Featured image by roberthyrons / istockphoto