Are leaders becoming more intelligent and stupid at the same time?


It has been found that peoples IQ’s are rising by an average 9 points per generation across many countries in the world.  This has been termed the Flynn Effect, after James R Flynn who did much to promote this phenomenon. So, as a global society, what do we have to show for this increase in intelligence?  Solutions to many of the world’s problems, such as economic volatility, food shortages, poverty and environmental degradation still elude us. 

It is often argued that many of the practices currently being demonstrated by our leaders are contributing to rather than solving these problems.  Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky describe this as ‘Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis’ (Harvard Business Review, July 2009).  To use their growing intelligence effectively, this article argues that leaders also need to develop their inherent wisdom.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg has defined wisdom as the use of one’s own intelligence and experience, mediated by values, toward the achievement of a common good.  Without wisdom Sternberg argues that smart people are especially susceptible to fallacies such as egocentrism, omniscience, omnipotence, and invulnerability.  Wisdom is often also described as the ability, developed through openness to experience, together with insight and reflection, to discern truth and exercise good judgement. This requires greater clarity, deeper authenticity, and agility.

Greater Clarity

Many leaders genuinely believe that they are able to perceive situations with absolute clarity.  In reality our perceptions are distorted by a fog emanating from our own personality, emotions, and experiences.  We in effect become conditioned to see the world not as it is but as we are.  So how can we lift the fog?  Through developing higher levels of awareness:


  • Self Awareness – The leader becoming aware of their habitual ways of thinking, feeling and acting.
  • Reflective Awareness – The leader reflects on their behaviour after engaging with different situations to determine if their perceptions were distorted and actions governed by their habits.
  • Mindfulness - The leader is able to witness their own perception, thoughts, emotions and behaviour in the present moment.

Each stage of awareness lays the foundations for the next. Progress through the stages enables the leader to realise higher levels of consciousness and perceive situations with a higher level of clarity. 

Deeper Authenticity

A leader’s authentic personality at work is often constructed from their strengths and experiences, which have enabled them to be successful in the past.  Their leadership behaviour becomes a way of reinforcing their image and maintaining their reputation.  They essentially use their leadership to defend their ego.  Having their authenticity wedded to the past constrains how they think, feel and act as a leader.    Their ability to discern truth and exercise good judgement in today’s volatile, complex and uncertain work environment becomes impaired.   Upon realising that their work personality is just a construct, the leader needs to find a deeper authenticity within.  This deeper level of authenticity can be found in their beliefs and values.  As leaders witness and take ownership of how their beliefs and values guide their behaviour, they ask – which part of me is doing the witnessing?  This witness consciousness is often described using terms such as True Self or Being.  It is at this point that the leader is able to hold their personality with a light touch and has little need to defend their ego.  Abraham Maslow (1962) in his book ‘Toward a Psychology of Being’ has famously described this point in adult development as ‘self actualisation’.


Through gaining higher levels of clarity and deeper levels of authenticity a leader is now in a better position to discern the truth.  The next stage in uncovering the leader’s inherent wisdom is to exercise good judgement.  This requires agility in thinking, feeling and acting.


  • Thinking - Most IQ tests predominantly measure ‘crystallised intelligence’ which draws on peoples past knowledge and experience.  To exercise good judgement in today’s complex, volatile and uncertain world requires a high level of ‘fluid intelligence’.  This type of intelligence draws on peoples’ capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge. 
  • Feeling – Much of what constrains a leader’s use of their fluid intelligence is their emotion.  Often they become so anxious in complex and unfamiliar situations, where their crystallized intelligence is of little value, that they lose confidence in their own judgment.  Leaders need to be mindful of their emotions and manage them according to the situation.   This ability is often termed ‘emotional Intelligence’. 
  • Acting – When psychometrics are overused leaders tend to hold on to their personality too tightly and subsequently become a rigid caricature of themselves.  To develop greater behavioural agility leaders need to be able to transcend the constraints of their personality and contact a deeper place of authenticity associated with their values. 

On our leadership development programmes, leaders develop their wisdom through transcending the constraints of their personality and moving beyond their habitual, and often unconscious, behaviour.  They become fully aware, agile, and grounded by their authenticity.  Wisdom is inherent within all leaders, they just need to uncover it.  Otherwise are we all destined to be led by highly intelligent stupid people?



Terry Sexton

Leadership Psychologist


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