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Convenient - but not enough
There seems to be no doubt that an intelligent leader is preferable to a less intelligent leader. Intelligent leaders are better able to analyse the context and make more appropriate decisions. They are endowed with a richer vocabulary and articulate a more effective discourse. But it does not follow that intelligence is an absolute value. Some people use their intelligence to be an exquisite tyrant.
Nor is intelligence enough to succeed. Some extraordinarily intelligent people have not made it out of the bad books - because they lacked flair, social skills or, simply, determination. Malcolm Gladwell referred to the sterling case of the US citizen with the highest IQ, Christopher Langam - who leads a relatively modest life and whose "career" is certainly not envied.
Intelligence can, in fact, represent a handicap for people who, because they are intelligent, think they will achieve good results without the need to make significant efforts. For this reason, Carol Dweck considers that it may not be convenient to tell a child that he is very intelligent.Inan interview, she was asked the following question: "In your book, you defend the thesis that certain compliments to children may not bring good results. What is the best way to encourage them?». Here is the answer:
"Praising a child's intelligence can lead them to a fixed mindset. That is, to take on easier challenges in which they may succeed, as they don't want to put the status of their intelligence to the test. But we have found that when you praise a child's effort or strategy, they will be guided into a growth mindset, where it is not scary or risky to take on a challenge; it is not debilitating to experience failure, because it is part of the learning process. In that case, children tend to work harder, rather than worry about not being smart."
Comparing two mindsets
I'm not good at this.
What am I missing?
I give up.
I will use a different strategy.
What I know and worth is not enough.
I will be able to do better.
I can't do any better.
I can always improve.
It is very difficult.
It may take some time.
I made a mistake.
Mistakes help me learn.
I can't do this.
I'm going to train.
This plan does not work.
There is always a plan B.
My colleague knows how to do it.
I will learn from others.
I'll never be that smart.
I will learn how to do it.
Conversely, less intelligent but very determined and spirited people outperform intelligent people lacking that determination. When compared to more intelligent people and at the same time endowed with a growth mindset (i.e. they believe that talent can be developed), these people are proactive and determined in pursuing their goals - and outperform intelligent people lacking drive.
Managing intelligence intelligently
Intelligence is important for a leader to make better decisions and be respected and credible. However, it is necessary to manage intelligence intelligently, which requires some care. First of all, it is important to know how to deal with stress properly. Excessive stress hinders the cognitive processing of information and, therefore, in very stressful contexts, intelligence loses some usefulness. In stressful contexts, it may be better to have an experienced leader with "normal" intelligence than a "very intelligent" but inexperienced leader.
Secondly, very intelligent leaders can intimidate "ordinary" people. Here is what was written by General McChrystal and his coauthors in a book on the myths and reality of leadership:
"Many groups select leaders who have a level of intelligence only slightly above average, presumably because they feel it is difficult to relate to those with exceptional intelligence. Followers desire competence and intelligence in their leaders, but they also want them to be relatable. This is why the relationship between leadership and genius is so curious. While leaders are generally intelligent, exceptionally intelligent people are less likely to emerge as leaders."
Intelligence can therefore make leaders excessively demanding and incomprehensible. It can lead them to high levels of ambition, but also to impatience. Those around them may feel unable to meet expectations. And the motivational climate of the team can become impoverished. Therefore, in certain circumstances, it may be smart for a leader not to reveal much intelligence. The teacher who insists on revealing intelligence to students may be alienating them and preventing himself from being a good teacher. The same is true for leaders who are more concerned with showing their intelligence than acting as developmental coaches for their followers.
Thirdly, very intelligent people can become arrogant and devalue the risks of their intelligent choices! They can be so cognitively sophisticated that they lose interest in the "banalities" of ordinary, mundane organizational life. They are enthusiastic about complex puzzles - but the problems and opportunities of organisational life are not necessarily so complex.
Intelligence therefore needs the company of other qualities - such as emotional competencies, wisdom and wisdom. It also requires the capacity for decisive action. Very intelligent leaders may become so engaged in understanding the complexities of the situation that they delay making a decision until they have formed the full picture of the situation - but the appropriate time for the decision may have run out in the meantime.
Choosing talent - or people with drive?
The leader's ability to use intelligence properly also applies to the choice of those led. It may be smart not to hire the smartest ones - if they behave like stars, are bad team players and become relationally insufferable. The ability to work in a team requires more than intelligence. Organisations that hire stars, whom they pay handsomely, risk disturbing the commitment of other employees who feel second-classified. The performance of a team does not depend on the sum of individual performances. And a collection of intelligent and brilliant people does not necessarily generate an intelligent team. The (collective) intelligence of a team depends on the ability of its members to share knowledge, learn from each other, be sensitive to each other's needs and make use of diversity.
There is an additional reason not to screen out some types of intelligent people: those who profile a fixed mindset . These people consider that because they are smart, they don't need to put in the effort to learn and grow. When they fail, they refuse to take it on themselves - or they become emotionally broken, feeling that failure is a sign of incapacity. These people may also refuse tasks that endanger their image. Conversely, less talented people with a growth mindset may be more willing to take risks, to see failure as an opportunity to learn, and to persevere.
Carol Dweck, an expert on mindset theory, was once asked the question, "You once said that valuing intellect and intelligence has caused us to fail as a society. Can you explain?». Here's the answer:
"To revere talent is to believe that it is fixed. You either have it or you don't. This favours a model in which people need to prove themselves constantly, rather than take risks on projects in which they might fail.Whereas reveringthe process of trying different strategies and learning from setbacks encourages people to take on more challenges and be more persistent."
He was also asked: "In your book, you defend the thesis that certain compliments to children may not bring good results. What is the best way to encourage them?». Dweck replied as follows:
"(...) Praising the child's intelligence can lead him to a fixed mindset. That is, to take on easier challenges in which they may succeed, as they don't want to put the status of their intelligence to the test. But we have found that when you praise the child's effort or strategy, they will be guided into a growth mindset, where it is not scary or risky to take on a challenge; it is not debilitating to experience failure, as it is part of the learning process. In that case, children tend to work harder, rather than worry about not being smart."
The reader might be tempted to argue that the theory applies to children and adolescents, but not to adults or to organisational life. Four points make it possible to understand that this theory does not describe reality. First: these two mindsets are shared during adult life. Second: different leaders advocate different mindsets. Third: organisations also differ in the degree to which their cultures are more energised by one mindset or the other. Fourth: leaders and organisations with fixed mindsets tend to consider intelligence and talent to be fixed. They therefore assume that talented people should be hired, if necessary from outside the organisation. In contrast, leaders and organisations with a growth mindset view intelligence and talent as amenable to development. They invest in people's development and act as talent multipliers. These leaders and organisations can be more successful than leaders and organisations with a fixed mindset and filled... with smart people.
Final note: the dark side
Intelligence, by itself, has no moral value. It acquires moral value by the way it is used. Very Machiavellian, manipulative and psychopathic leaders become especially problematic when endowed with great intelligence.
Unintelligent intelligence, intelligent unintelligence: key ideas
In certain circumstances, being smart may not reveal much intelligence. And intelligence alone does not make good leadership - requiring the company of other attributes such as social skills, practical wisdom, emotional intelligence and determination. Smart people lacking determination can be outmanoeuvred by less intelligent but gritty people.
Three implications for action
- Don't overexpose your intelligence. That may not be very smart - it may intimidate other people.
- Very intelligent leaders may, in certain situations, make very unintelligent decisions. Reason: the nature of some situations does not require great intelligence, so applying too much intelligence to the situation can be a source of complications. Therefore: do not complicate what is simple!
- Don't label people as intelligent or as incapable. Talent can be developed. Act as a talent multiplier.
Supplement your intelligence with prudence, practical wisdom, common sense and determination.