How Smart is Too Smart? New Leadership Study Analyzes

A new report suggests that a leader with an overly high level of intelligence can threaten to leave behind employees who may not be able to follow overly complex strategies or communication styles.

Being smart sounds like a desirable thing you’d want out of a leader, but as it turns out intelligence might have its limits.

Here’s the deal: According to a new report from researchers at Switzerland’s University of Lausanne, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California, Davis, over-intelligence can cause problems for leaders, because of a mixture of communication and complexity issues. In other words, being smart can lead to situations where your words and strategies fly above people’s heads.

The report, Can Super Smart Leaders Suffer From Too Much of a Good Thing? The Curvilinear Effect of Intelligence on Perceived Leadership Behavior, analyzed the impact of leadership strategies on nearly 400 midlevel European workers of above-average intelligence. The researchers found that the effectiveness of a leader peaked at a specific intelligence quotient (IQ), declining at lower and higher rates of intelligence.

“Accounting for the effects of leader personality, gender, age, as well as company, country, and time fixed effects, analyses indicated that perceptions of leadership followed a curvilinear inverted-U function of intelligence,” the report stated. “The peak of this function was at an IQ score of about 120, which did not depart significantly from the value predicted by the theory.”

The research, noted the report, largely followed prior findings from UC Davis’ Dean Keith Simonton, one of the study’s authors.

The factors that lead to this relationship of intelligence and effectiveness, according to the report, show in a couple of ways, both in regard to the more sophisticated forms of problem solving shown by those with higher intelligence, as well as their more sophisticated forms of communicating their thoughts with those who they’re leading.

“Specifically, each increment in intelligence at low levels brings enormous payoffs to leaders,” the report adds. “The marginal effect tapers off as intelligence scores increase, to a point of becoming negative, even strongly so at very high levels of intelligence.”

It’s worth noting that leaders on the same wavelength as their employees may have an easier time communicating, even with higher intelligence. The report, notably, makes this point with a pop-culture icon: The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper.

As the report concludes, “Sheldon could still be a leader—if he can find a group of followers smart enough to appreciate his prose!”

Speaking of pop-culture icons, a good way to think about this issue may be through the frame of celebrities. What’s your leadership type? Check out this 2013 Associations Now article to find out.

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Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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