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Too Smart for Your Own Good?


by Barbara Ruland, SIOP Communications Specialist

The Curvilinear Relationship Between Leader IQ and Perceived Effectiveness

Intelligence matters for leaders, but depending on who is being led it is entirely possible to be too smart for one’s own good.

That’s the core finding of a new Journal of Applied Psychology paper co-authored by John Antonakis, SIOP Fellow and professor of organizational behavior at the University of Lausanne. 

The paper, titled “Can Super Smart Leaders Suffer from Too Much of a Good Thing? The Curvilinear Effect of Intelligence on Perceived Leadership Behavior,” reports on a study of 379 mid-level managers in seven different multi-national companies.

Given a consensus in the leadership literature suggesting modest effects, Antonakis thought the predictive power of intelligence had been slighted.  After many discussions with the late Robert J. House, of the University of Pennsylvania, who had consistently believed in the importance of individual differences for leadership, the two researchers set out to gather their own data over a six-year span. 

An interesting twist occurred when the data came in.

 “I nearly fell off my chair because the patterns we observed in the data were predicted almost exactly by a theory proposed by Dean Keith Simonton, University of California, Davis, and published in 1985 in Psychological Review.,” Antonakis said. “I invited Dean to join as co-author and help write the paper and he was delighted to accept. He’d been waiting for 30 years to see this data!”

In the study, managers were given IQ tests and were rated on their perceived effectiveness, mostly by their subordinates. Managers represented companies in a range of sectors, including banking, insurance, food manufacturing, telecommunications and high-technology, hospitality, and retail.

The author team measured other important leadership variables, including the “big five” personality factors, gender, and age. The results indicated that managers’ intelligence does indeed have a strong relationship with perceptions of prototypically good leadership, as well as leadership effectiveness. 

This relation was not linear, but non-linear—in fact an inverted U (i.e., the slope changed depending on how smart the leader was).

The “sweet spot” for leader IQ is about 1.2 standard deviations higher than that of the team led, which was estimated based on the average intelligence of workers in different occupations.

Antonakis stresses there is no one-size-fits-all IQ target for managers.

“The optimal level of intelligence of the leader depends on the average level of intelligence of the group that he or she is leading,” he explained. “The importance of intelligence, versus personality factors also depends on the job requirements for task and supportive leader functions.”

The theory suggests that if the average workers within an industry have an IQ of about 110 points, the relation of intelligence to perceived leader effectiveness increases to a peak at 128 IQ points; then it tapers off and the relationship becomes negative.

“You need to be smarter than the average person in the group so you can better see problems, better identify solutions, better articulate how to move forward, and to keep rivals at bay,” Antonakis said, “but not be so smart that you speak in ways workers don’t understand and they don’t identify with you.”

Measuring IQ can be very helpful in selecting managers, but it’s not the only factor contributing to success, and its relative importance depends on the job and the balance required between task and relationship focus, he added. 

“The first thing is to see to what extent this person has to directly lead people or to manage organizational structures and focus more on strategic and task matters. That’s a very important point,” Antonakis said.

“The more strategic a post is, the more intelligence matters; and the more the person is going to be involved with other people and interacting with other people then the more likely it is that the optimal level is going to depend on the mean level of the group led,” he continued.   

Antonakis suggests that once the job demands have been analyzed and the average IQ of the followers is taken into consideration, managerial candidates can be screened for the proper IQ “fit.”  

“Of course you would need to also assess their personality and ensure they have the right skills and experience,” he said. “IQ matters a lot and is probably the most important factor weighing in on leader effectiveness. However, it is not the only factor.”

The Journal of Applied Psychology paper is Antonakis’ third publication about the research that emanated from his long-term collaboration with House.  Their first book chapter, “The Full Range Leadership Theory: The Way Forward” was published in Transformational and Charismatic Leadership, Volume 2 in 2002.  They also published a paper recently in The Leadership Quarterly titled “Instrumental Leadership: Measurement and Extension of Transformational–Transactional Leadership Theory.”

Antonakis is interested in testing Simonton’s theory as it applies to different managerial levels.

“It would be ideal if we could do this with very high-ranking leaders, and also maybe with lower level leaders, “ he continued. “That’s something I might do in the future.”


John Antonakis is Professor of Organizational Behavior and Director of the Ph.D. Program in Management for the Faculty of Business and Economics (HEC) at the University of Lausanne. He is also Editor in Chief of the journal The Leadership Quarterly. He specializes in the measurement and development of leadership as well as in research methods.

For an idea of his recent research take a look at his TedX presentation on Charisma.

Email him here.