Leadership and Intelligence
Post heroic leadership places facilitation skills above intelligence. Gone is the heroic individual with the wisdom to cut through complexity single-handedly.
How important is it for a leader to be intelligent? The short answer is that it depends on how leadership is defined. If being a CEO means being a leader, the answer to the question is probably “yes.” But if leadership is defined in a different way, then the answer might be “no.”
The Relationship Between Intelligence and Leadership
In the early years of studying leadership, the so-called “trait theory” took the view that there is a set of traits that marks leaders from non-leaders. Early traits claimed to be characteristic of leaders included intelligence, a drive to dominate others, being extroverted and having charisma. Today, people often point to the importance of emotional intelligence, facilitative skills and integrity. The trait theory implies that certain personal characteristics are necessary conditions for leadership, or at least, effective leadership. In later thinking about leadership, this approach was abandoned because it was felt that leadership effectiveness varied too much across situations and types of people being led. The feeling was that there were no universally necessary traits to be a leader.
More recently, trait thinking has been making a comeback. In particular, numerous studies associate intelligence with leadership effectiveness. Some thinkers feel that the more senior the executive the more important are general cognitive skills, the ability to grasp more and more complex information to make informed decisions.
The Move to Post Heroic Leadership
The work of Jim Collins, especially in his book, Good to Great, has helped to popularize a facilitative style of leadership. He called his version of post heroic leadership “level 5 leadership.” Collins did extensive research on companies that had moved from average to exceptional levels of performance over several years. He found the CEOs of such companies to be humble, to feel that they did not have all the answers. Collins used the slogan “first who then what” to explain how these CEOs worked. They got their best people together (first who) and conducted brainstorming sessions with them to develop new strategies for the business (then what). Collins used this slogan to contrast it with the more heroic leadership model where the CEO decides what needs to be done and then gets people to execute the new strategy. Collins expressed this style with the slogan “first what then who.”
Level 5 leadership is just one model of what has become known as post heroic leadership. The central theme running through all of such models of leadership is that the CEO needs to develop new directions by drawing out the best thinking of the organization. This approach to deciding strategic direction ties in the the “wisdom of crowds” idea, the view that groups make better decisions than individuals. Here, the most important skill for the CEO is to be a good facilitator. The need for intelligence in any one individual is not so strong if the best decisions are made by groups.
So, if leadership means that CEOs should call the shots based on their own thinking then, given the increasing complexity of today’s world, they had better be quite intelligent. Conversely, if leadership means being able to draw the best ideas out of others, then CEO intelligence is not as important as facilitation skills.
Leadership Reinvented for a Digital Age
A totally different conception of leadership says that it has nothing to do with position. On this view, being a CEO means being a manager. A CEO can show occasional leadership, but only management is a role. By freeing leadership from position, it becomes clearer how all employees can show some leadership. The essence of leadership now is that it is simply the successful promotion of a better way, a new idea for a new direction. It can be shown by example when a front-line employee works in a new way or promotes more efficient practices or new products. It involves challenging the status quo. Such “thought leadership” can be very small scale and local.
The question of intelligence is very situational. It depends on the audience to which a person is trying to show leadership. More intelligence will likely be necessary to influence an intelligent audience. Such leadership is a matter of presenting hard evidence for a new product or strategy. An intelligent audience needs to see the person trying to show leadership to them as credible and technically sound in the business case being made. Conversely, an employee demonstrating a better approach to serving customers in a retail store can show leadership without the same degree of intelligence.
Crucially, however, major strategic decisions that take large, complex organizations in new directions are most likely to be sound if made by a group. Where leadership is defined as promoting new directions, the use of facilitation skills to help a group make good decisions can be seen as a management technique. This means that CEOs who use such skills to develop new strategies are wearing a managerial hat in so doing.
Thus, on two of our three ways of defining leadership, high intelligence is either not necessary or only situationally important.