Leaders can be perceived as quottoo intelligentquot by their teams who find it difficult to relate to them and their stragegies

Are You Too Smart for Your Own Good?

April 6, 2017
Intelligence matters for leaders, but depending on who is being led, it is entirely possible to be too smart for one’s own good.

Can super-smart leaders suffer from too much of a good thing? That’s the premise of a paper recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology that was co-authored by John Antonakis, Ph.D., professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Lausanne and fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychologists, and Dean Keith Simonton, Ph.D., distinguished professor of Psychology at University of California, Davis.

The paper, titled “Can Super Smart Leaders Suffer From Too Much of a Good Thing? The Curvilinear Effect of Intelligence on Perceived Leadership Behavior,” reports on a study of 379 mid-level managers in seven different multi-national companies.

Given a consensus in the leadership literature suggesting modest effects of intelligence on perceived leadership behavior, Antonakis thought that the predictive power of intelligence had been slighted. After many discussions with the late Robert J. House of the University of Pennsylvania, who consistently believed in the importance of individual differences for leadership, researchers set out to gather their own data over a six-year span.  

An interesting twist occurred when the data came in. As Antonakis said, “I nearly fell off my chair because the patterns we observed in the data were predicted almost exactly by a theory proposed [by Simonton] and published in 1985 in Psychological Review. I invited Dean to join as co-author and help write the paper and he was delighted to accept. He’d been waiting for 30 years to see this data!”

In the study, managers were given IQ tests and were rated on their perceived effectiveness, mostly by their subordinates. Managers represented companies in a range of sectors, including banking, insurance, food manufacturing, telecommunications and high-technology, hospitality and retail.

The author team measured other important leadership variables, including the “big five” personality factors, gender and age. The results indicated that managers’ intelligence does indeed have a strong relationship with perceptions of prototypically good leadership, as well as leadership effectiveness. 

This relation was not linear, but non-linear; in fact, it was an inverted U (i.e., the slope changed depending on how smart the leader was). The “sweet spot” for leader IQ is about 1.2 standard deviations higher than that of the team led by the leader, which was estimated on the basis of the average intelligence of workers in different occupations.

Antonakis stresses there is no one-size-fits-all IQ target for managers: “The optimal level of intelligence of the leader depends on the average level of intelligence of the group that he or she is leading. The importance of intelligence versus personality factors also depends on the job requirements for task and supportive leader functions.”

The theory suggests that if the average workers have an IQ of about 110 points, the relation of intelligence to perceived leader effectiveness increases to a peak at 128 IQ points; then it tapers off and the relationship becomes negative.

“You need to be smarter than the average person in the group so you can better see problems, better identify solutions, better articulate how to move forward and to keep rivals at bay,” says Antonakis, “but not be so smart that you speak in ways workers don’t understand and they don’t identify with you.”

Measuring IQ can be very helpful in selecting managers, but it’s not the only factor contributing to success. Its relative importance depends on the job and the balance required between task and relationship focus, he added. 

“The first thing is to see to what extent this person has to directly lead people or to manage organizational structures and focus more on strategic and task matters. That’s a very important point,” Antonakis notes.

“The more strategic a post is, the more intelligence matters; and the more the person is going to be involved with other people and interacting with other people then the more likely it is that the optimal level is going to depend on the mean level of the group led,” he continues.   

He suggests that once the job demands have been analyzed and the average IQ of the followers is taken into consideration, managerial candidates can be screened for the proper IQ “fit.”  

“Of course, you would need to also assess their personality and ensure they have the right skills and experience. IQ matters a lot and is probably the most important factor weighing in on leader effectiveness. However, it is not the only factor,” he says.

The Journal of Applied Psychology paper is Antonakis’s third publication about the research that emanated from his long-term collaboration with House. Their first book chapter, “The Full Range Leadership Theory: The Way Forward,” was published in "Transformational and Charismatic Leadership," Volume 2 in 2002.  They also published a paper recently in The Leadership Quarterly, titled, “Instrumental Leadership: Measurement and Extension of Transformational–Transactional Leadership Theory.”

Antonakis says he is interested in testing Simonton’s theory as it applies to different managerial levels. “It would be ideal if we could do this with very high-ranking leaders, and also maybe with lower-level leaders. That’s something I might do in the future.”

For an idea of Antonakis’ recent research, take a look at his TedX presentation on Charisma.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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