Are you too intelligent to be a good leader?

As Emmanuel Macron once discovered, high IQs come with a downside.

by John Antonakis
Last Updated: 30 Jan 2020

In 2017, Emmanuel Macron sparked anger and mockery for dispensing with the French president’s traditional Bastille Day television interview because, his spokesman said, "his complex thought process lends itself badly to the game of question-and-answer with journalists".

This decision didn’t go down too well.  "Us no understand President Macron" was the headline in Marianne magazine. And Buzzfeed France posted a page titled "Ten sentences by Macron that are too complex for you, sorry you morons".

The above issues highlight a very important factor about leadership that isn’t widely understood. Even though IQ is often linked to leadership effectiveness, more intelligence does not equate to better perceptions of leadership. You can have all the answers and be right all the time, but still be seen as not being a very effective leader. 

A few years ago, I set out with my colleagues Robert House from the University of Pennsylvania and Dean Keith Simonton from University of California, Davis, to explore the relationship between IQ and perceptions of effective leadership. Dean had written a theory about the IQ-leadership link and we found what he had predicted: that there’s a curvilinear relationship (inverted U shape) between intelligence and perceptions of leadership effectiveness.

There is an optimal level of leader intelligence that depends on circumstances: if your IQ is too far above or below this level, it can have a negative impact on your perceived leadership effectiveness.

The gap between the IQ of a leader and the IQ of his or her followers is all-important: it shouldn’t exceed 18 IQ points.  So for a group of followers of average intelligence (i.e. with IQ of about 100) the optimal IQ for leader intelligence is about 118. That’s enough to be considered ‘highly intelligent’, but a long way from ‘superior intelligence’ (an IQ of 130 – 145) or being ‘supremely gifted’ (an IQ above 145).  

The further away a person's IQ is from the optimal score, the less effective the leader is seen by others. Thus, although Macron’s subordinate leaders or MPs can follow what he says and understand him, perhaps the average Joe or Jane might not.

Leaders therefore risk falling foul of a ‘comprehension gap’ as their less intellectual subordinates struggle to follow their ideas or find their communication too complex. Presumably this issue is what Macron was worried about. The best leaders, for a particular context, are smart enough to lead the group and also keep rivals at bay, but not so smart that their group can’t identify with them.

(One may well ask, how did Macron win the election? The dynamics of winning presidential elections count on other factors like incumbency and the economy too, and here Macron was helped by the fact that economy, under Holland was not doing well and that the usual rival from the Republicans, Fillon, was scandal-plagued. See also my discussions on the Obama-Romney or Trump-Clinton elections.)

This phenomenon can present high-IQ leaders in typical management conditions with some difficulties – not least because becoming (or even appearing) less smart is unlikely to be a practical option. Dumbing down one’s discourse is also hard to do because it may seem like the leader is being manipulative.

It is not all bad news, though. Remember, our research was primarily based on perceptions of leadership behavior rather than objective measures of outcomes. So being super-smart may be less of an issue in an environment where leadership is predominately task-focused and where meeting the social and emotional needs of others is less important. Of course, if the group being led is very smart too  - say a team of scientists or engineers – then the leader can, and indeed must, have a rather high level of IQ.

At CEO level, it’s different: the IQ-leadership relation is positive, though there is a diminishing return with increasing levels of IQ. This perspective might also explain why CEOs tend to be very smart individuals who are overrepresented in the top 1 per cent of intelligence.

Further down the executive hierarchy, however, success may depend more on how to manage the ‘people factor’. Paying attention to the socio-emotional needs of followers is likely to be beneficial to a leader’s career progression, whereas being super-smart will make someone seem less empathetic and so be an impediment to success.

This research points to an interesting leadership selection dilemma. Because if selection and advancement to senior levels partly depends on the perceptions of subordinates and peers, will that count against those individuals with ‘above-optimal’ IQs who objectively might perform better in more task oriented senior roles?

Perhaps the answer for someone who is both super-smart and super-ambitious is to figure out ways to speak intelligently but to be understood too. My research shows charismatic leaders are able to pull this feat off. But that might be a question for another time.

John Antonakis is professor of organizational behaviour at HEC Lausanne and editor-in-chief of Leadership Quarterly.

This article was originally published in November 2017.

Image credit: JD Hancock/Flickr (Creative Commons)


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