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[The following is taken from chapter one of Multiple Intelligences and Leadership, edited by Ronald E. Riggio, Susan E. Murphy and Francis J. Pirozzolo, and is reproduced by permission from Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.]

Multiple Intelligences and Leadership: An Overview

Questions of the role that intelligence plays in leadership are old ones.  Are the smartest individuals most likely to obtain positions of leadership?   Are bright leaders the most effective leaders?  Is a high IQ a prerequisite for leaders?  While high-level leaders in politics, in business, and in social movements certainly seem smart, and appear perhaps to be well above average in intelligence, skeptics note that there have been prominent leaders who seemed to be of average (and perhaps even below average) intelligence.  Moreover, many of our greatest intellectual minds are in the sciences, in research, and in education, and they do not obtain, nor even pursue, positions of leadership.  So, what is the connection between intelligence and leadership?

Scientific studies of the role of intelligence in leadership date back to the 1920s and 1930s.  Much of this early research suggested that intelligence did indeed contribute to leadership.  For example, leaders were found to be more intelligent than their followers, and intelligence was consistently correlated with perceptions of leadership  (see Bass, 1990, and Lord, DeVader, & Alliger, 1986, for reviews).  One obvious limitation to this approach, however, was that it did not take into account context or situational factors.  Early on, for example, Hollingworth (1926) found that if a leader’s intelligence was too much greater than that of followers, followers did not identify with the leader, and this presumably detracted from the leader’s effectiveness.  So we might expect that the leader of a cutting-edge software development company should be reasonably intelligent – at least on a par with some of the bright software engineers she or he oversees.  But the on-field leader of a sports team might not have to have a particularly high IQ, particularly if he or she is a talented athlete, experienced, and knowledgeable of the sport.  Because of situational factors, we cannot assume that the relationship between intelligence and leadership is going to be a straightforward one.  Of course, many modern theories of leadership emphasize this interaction of leader characteristics (such as intelligence) and qualities or characteristics of the leadership situation.

Another limitation of this early research on intelligence and leadership was the overemphasis on general, academic intelligence.  Most commonly, research on intelligence and leadership focused on traditional, IQ-based notions of intelligence, even though early scholars did note the importance of a broader conceptualization of intelligence.  For instance, constructs such as “emotional maturity”, “social insight”, “tact”, and “social skills/competence”, were all believed by early researchers to be associated with effective leadership (Bass, 1990).  This makes sense.  Although some prominent and successful leaders may not be intellectual giants, most would agree that these individuals have some sort of savvy – a kind of “street smarts” that makes them effective in their leadership roles.  In many ways, these other constructs discussed by early leadership researchers parallel the multiple types of intelligence that are today capturing the attention of intelligence researchers, personality and social psychologists, and social scientists in general.  For example, social insight and social skills are components of the domain of “social intelligence” (Marlowe, 1986; Riggio, Messamer, & Throckmorton, 1991).  The notion of “tact” is reflected in Sternberg and Wagner’s conceptualization of “practical intelligence” (Sternberg & Wagner, 1986; Wagner & Sternberg, 1985), and “emotional maturity” has transformed into Salovey and Mayer’s notion of “emotional intelligence” (Mayer & Salovey, 1993; Salovey & Mayer, 1990).  Each of these various types of intelligence will be explored in the chapters of this book.

Even the earliest intelligence researchers knew, of course, that there was more to intelligence than the mental abilities represented in traditional intelligence tests.  For example, Edward Thorndike first defined social intelligence in 1920, and there were soon several attempts to measure the construct (Moss, Hunt, Omwake, & Ronning, 1927; R.L. Thorndike & Stein, 1937).  Guilford (1967) was long an advocate of multiple facets of intelligence, and in the past two decades, Gardner (1983) and Sternberg (1985) have argued for specific, multiple domains of intelligence.  Today, intelligence is being more broadly conceptualized and defined.  What is surprising is that it is only fairly recently that these broader notions of intelligence are being applied to the study of leadership.  For a very long time, any scholar or informed observer of leadership has known that great and effective leaders have had something more than mere IQ going for them.

The most recent explosion of interest in intelligence and leadership has been fueled by the success of Daniel Goleman”s (1995) Emotional Intelligence.  Even though the construct of “emotional intelligence” itself is only a decade old, the past few years have seen the terms EI or EQ (as opposed to IQ) become part of commonplace language, and there has been a rush of books on the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace (e.g., Cooper & Sawaff, 1997; Feldman, 1999; Goleman, 1998; Ryback, 1997; Weisinger, 1998).  Despite the popularity of the emotional intelligence concept, research has only begun to explore its depths, and to try to understand its true relationship to leader effectiveness.  Moreover, emotional intelligence is only one type of intelligence that plays a part in successful leadership.  Social intelligence, practical intelligence, and creativity are other facets of the broader construct of intelligence that are implicated in good leadership.

The resurgence of interest in leadership and intelligence, and particularly the exploration of the role of multiple types or facets of intelligence in leader effectiveness, appears to be a reawakening of the “trait approach” to leadership (see Zaccaro, 2000, chapter 3, this volume).  However, rather than focusing on narrow conceptualizations of leader characteristics, traits such as social, emotional, or practical intelligence represent complex constellations of abilities.  These multiple forms of intelligence are not only possessed by effective leaders, but they are the types of characteristics that may make leaders effective in a range of leadership situations because they involve abilities to adapt to a variety of social and interpersonal situations.  While IQ has not been a particularly good predictor of effective leadership across situations, a combination of general/academic intelligence, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, and perhaps, other domains of intelligence may do a good job of predicting leadership effectiveness.  Yet, we are only beginning to explore the connections between multiple forms of intelligence and leadership.

In many ways, these two fields, intelligence and leadership, have been moving along parallel lines.  While intelligence researchers were working to broaden the rather narrow existing emphasis on verbal and academic-based cognitive abilities, leadership researchers realized that while it was important for a leader to be smart, there was much more to “intelligent” leadership than simply IQ.



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Cooper, R.K. & Sawaff, A. (1997).  EQ: Emotional intelligence in leadership and organizations.  New York: Grosset/Putnam.

Gardner, H.  (1983).  Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences.  New York: Basic Books.

Goleman, D. (1995).  Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ.  New York: Bantam.

Goleman, D. (1998).  Working with emotional intelligence.  New York: Bantam.

Guilford, J.P.  (1967).  The nature of human intelligence.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Feldman, D.A.  (1999).  The handbook of emotionally intelligent leadership: Inspiring others to achieve results.  New York: Leadership Performance Solutions.

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Lord, R.G., DeVader, C.L., & Alliger, G.M.  (1986).  A meta-analysis of the relation between personality traits and leadership perceptions: An application of validity generalization procedures.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 71, 402-410.

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Salovey, P., & Mayer, J.D.  (1990).  Emotional intelligence.  Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185-211.

Sternberg, R.J.  (1985).  Beyond IQ: A triarchic theory of human intelligence.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R.J., & Wagner, R.K. (1986).  Practical intelligence: Nature and origins of competence in the everyday world.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thorndike, E.L.  (1920).  Intelligence and its uses.  Harper’s Magazine, 140, 227-235.

Thorndike, R.L., & Stein, S.  (1937).  An evaluation of the attempts to measure social intelligence.  Psychological Bulletin, 34, 275-285.

Wagner, R.K., & Sternberg, R.J.  (1985).  Practical intelligence in real-world pursuits: The role of tacit knowledge.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 436-458.

Weisinger, H. (1998).  Emotional intelligence at work.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.