How Smart Should a Leader Be?

"Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage.”  Malcolm Gladwell

"Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it." Mark Twain

What makes a good leader?   While we can talk about the need for a leader to be strong in personality traits such as conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, or openness to experience, one trait that everybody seems to regard as important for a leader is basic intelligence.   By and large, world leaders, or for that matter, anyone in a position of authority, is expected to have above-average intelligence.  But is it possible for a leader to be seen as too smart?   Certainly President Barack Obama having a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from Harvard University did little to sway his most vicious critics while Abraham Lincoln's lack of formal education never prevented him from becoming one of the most revered U.S. presidents.  

In fact, University of California psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton proposed an intriguing theory regarding the nonlinear relationship between perceived leadership and intelligence.  According to this theory, there seems to be an optimum relationship between the level of intelligence of leaders and the intelligence of the people who are being led.   In other words, given that the average IQ of any group (including potential voters) fluctuates between 100 to 110, the optimum level of a leader's intelligence will be no more than 1.2 standard deviations above the group mean (i.e., an I.Q. of around 120-125).  In other words, a leader seen as being too intelligent may well have difficulty convincing people of his or her leadership ability.

Why would this be?  Well, according to Simonton and other researchers working in the field, overly intelligent leaders may put off potential followers by  (a) presenting “more sophisticated solutions to problems [which] may be much more difficult to understand” , (b) using “complex forms of verbal communication[and] expressive sophistication [that] may also undermine influence” , and (c) come across as too “cerebral” making them less more likely to be seen as an "outsider" and not "one of us."   It is also important for leaders to seem sincere rather than conveying the impression that they are "dumbing down" their message to gain acceptance, something that is often difficult to project.   Also, Simonton's model deals with perceived leadership rather than actual leadership ability.  Given that people often have difficulty following someone who doesn't inspire confidence, this often amounts to the same thing, however.

To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.


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