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  • An effective boss doesn't always try to prove how smart they are, according to executive coaches.
  • Instead, they're able to delegate to employees who may even be smarter and more skilled than they are.
  • Research suggests that high intelligence is only helpful to leaders up to a point.



After a lifetime of working with top CEOs in a range of fields, Marshall Goldsmith is able to identify with certainty the most treacherous stumbling block for modern leaders.

"The biggest challenge is not always winning," Goldsmith told me. "Not always being right. Not always proving how smart you are."

Countering this behaviour can be even harder than it sounds. Goldsmith explained that successful people tend to be highly educated, and have achieved what they've achieved largely by proving over and over again how intelligent they are.

"The problem is," he said, "when you move up to the top executive levels, you have to quit doing that."

This phenomenon is but one example of the fact that, often, what gets you into a leadership position isn't enough to keep you in power. Goldsmith even co-wrote a book on the topic: "What Got You Here Won't Get You There."

Dennis Perkins, CEO of leadership consultancy The Syncretics Group, agrees. "People get into [leadership] positions and they have the potential; they have the raw material," he told me. They may have loads of technical, or even project-management, expertise.

But "the things that got them into a [leadership] position may not be necessarily enough to propel them to the top," Perkins said.

Super-high intelligence may not be a predictor of successful leadership, anyway

Indeed, some research suggests that, for leaders, intelligence matters less than we might think. One 2004 study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that leaders are more likely to be high in extroversion and conscientiousness (i.e. the willingness to work hard) than they are to be super-intelligent.

Interestingly, a 2017 study, also published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that intelligence does help leaders succeed — but only up to a point.

According to that study, leaders become increasingly effective [as perceived by co-workers] as their score on the Wonderlic Personnel Test — a widely used intelligence test — increases to 128. (The average score is 100, and the leaders' average was 111.) After that, leadership effectiveness starts to dip.

So what's a leader who thinks they're smarter than everyone else (or really is smarter than everyone else) to do?

Perkins said that leaders "need to be able to step back, to delegate, to let others make mistakes, and to coach and mentor without necessarily solving the problems themselves."

"You need to say, ‘Wait a minute. I'm here to help other people be heroes. I'm not here to be the hero anymore," Goldsmith said. In fact, he added, "You want the employees to know more than the boss."

Ultimately, Goldsmith said, when it comes to interacting with your employees, "You've got to ask. You have to listen. You have to learn. And that's one of the biggest challenges of all the leaders I've coached."

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