Can You be Too Clever to Be a Good Leader?

January 17, 2018 Richard Justenhoven
image leadership effectiveness

Intelligence and Leadership. How do they work together?

You may think that ‘intelligent’ people get promoted: they climb the career ladder and take up leadership roles. But how does one’s intelligence impact on one’s effectiveness as a good leader?

Antonakis and colleagues at the University of Lausanne investigated this with a group of nearly 400 private sector-based, mid-level, leaders. Of this participant group, 27% were women – and across the group, it had an average age of 38 years.

Each participant completed a personality questionnaire and an ‘intelligence’ IQ test. The team also had access to third-party ratings of the participants’ leadership performance via a further questionnaire which explored the degree to which various leadership styles were employed by the participant.

The results

Antonakis’ team found that women tended to employ more positive leadership styles. That is, they make use of leadership styles such as the inspirational ‘transformational’ style and being ‘instrumental’ by removing stumbling blocks of their team members. Indeed, older leaders also tend to adopt these styles and much of the variance can be accounted for by personality and intelligence.

The team discovered that, although there is a clear, positive linear relationship between intelligence and leadership effectiveness (that is, as intelligence increases, as does rating by others about being an effective leader), this relationship ‘flattens out’ and, in fact, ‘reverses’ when individual has an IQ of about 120 or above.

It means that they showed that the higher IQ-scoring leaders tended to receive lower scores on the perceived-as-positive leadership styles and, indeed, beyond an IQ of 128, the association with less effective leadership was clear and statistically significant.

But the team’s research showed that whilst very highly intelligence correlates with less use of effective leadership methods, it does not correlate with a greater use of the more ‘harmful’ leadership styles (such as a laissez-faire approach).

What this means

Whilst we don’t know why these very smart leaders seem to use less effective leadership styles, the research team does offer a suggestion; use of language. Perhaps those with greater intelligence use more complex, less accessible, less inspiring language, or don’t know how to reduce or communicate tasks to be less complex for team members to understand.

It seems we need to explore further why it may be that the very highly intelligent simply don’t employ the most effective leadership styles and that consequently leads their peers and team members to rate them lower in leadership effectiveness than less ‘clever’ leaders.


Antonakis, J., House, R. J., & Simonton, D. K. (2017). Can super smart leaders suffer from too much of a good thing? The curvilinear effect of intelligence on perceived leadership behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(7), 1003-1021.

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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