With Martin G. Moore

Episode #219

Intelligence is Overrated: So, what matters more than that?

When it comes to business, the relationship between intellect and leadership can be fraught. A strong leader with high intellect can be incredibly effective, and make a huge difference to the companies they work for, and to every person they lead.

But highly intelligent people who rely on their intellect, to the exclusion of the leadership skills that would mobilize their people, generally struggle in the big jobs, and it often ends in tears.

There’s a massive difference between being a great leader, and being a smart executive… and, unfortunately, I’ve met many more smart executives than great leaders.

This episode explores the often counterbalanced forces of intelligence and leadership in some detail, and provides guidance on how to leverage your intellect to enhance your leadership performance.

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Episode #219 Intelligence is Overrated: So, what matters more than that?

One of life’s greatest tragedies is to see talented people squandering their innate gifts. While almost everyone has untapped capacity, capability, and talent (in some way, shape or form), many learn to make the most of what they’ve got, and maximize their opportunities as a result.

When it comes to business, the relationship between intellect and leadership can be fraught. A strong leader with high intellect can be incredibly effective, and make a huge difference to the companies they work for, and to every person they lead. But a highly intelligent person who relies on their intellect, to the exclusion of the leadership skills that would mobilize their people, generally struggles in the big jobs – and it often ends in tears.

There’s a massive difference between being a great leader, and just being a smart executive – and unfortunately, I’ve met many more smart executives than I have great leaders. I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about…


For many years, I’ve used a checklist of attributes and capabilities to help identify leaders who will grow. It doesn’t necessarily mean they will grow, but it gives a laundry list of readily observable attributes that serve as a pretty reliable guide. Some of these are things that you can observe from a distance, which is good when you have limited interactions with the people in the layers below you.

I can’t remember where I originally came across this list in its original form, but it feels like a Danny Hovey special. Danny is my most trusted and respected advisor in all things human performance related. His deep expertise in everything from organizational change to industrial safety and neurolinguistic programming is phenomenal.

Anyhow, I’ve adapted this list a few times and, given the question I’m trying to address, I’m going to look at it from a slightly different perspective. I wanted to explore which of these characteristics are linked predominantly to intellect, and which are linked more to leadership and personal behaviors – or if you prefer, an IQ-based versus EQ-based distinction.

There are 12 characteristics in all, and four of them are predominantly based on IQ:

  • The ability to anticipate and avoid obstacles

  • The ability to learn from mistakes and not repeat them

  • The capacity to identify value drivers and get leverage; and

  • The intellect to articulate complex problems in simple terms.

In simple terms, if you’re a leader, these are highly valuable capabilities. They contribute directly to your competence and your ability to perform successfully in complex situations. They focus on your ability to function at the highest levels of business, to solve problems, and to make decisions that are likely to be good ones. If you can’t master these capabilities, it’s definitely going to detract from your performance – and in turn, it’ll reduce the likelihood that you’ll be promoted.

But there’s definitely a leadership element to these intellectually-driven capabilities too. Your people need to have confidence in your ability to get the job done:

  • To be able to process the complex information at your disposal and give them good direction

  • To use your intellect and judgment to make sure you outperform your competitors

  • To be able to explain complex situations to them in a way that they can understand and action; and

  • To be able to see patterns and apply previous learnings to new situations.

Your intellect is an important foundation for your leadership skills. Unfortunately, over-reliance on your intellect, or not knowing how to integrate it with your people skills can be a drag on your leadership performance for a number of reasons.

For a start, when you have all the answers, you don’t leave a lot of room for your people to come up with the answers themselves. They just don’t get the opportunity to learn and grow – and over time, people will actually stop questioning you because they expect you to be right. Now that’s groupthink. And probably most importantly, when you’re right all the time, you erode your people’s individual accountability… which they’ll be more than happy to pass upwards to you.

Yes, intellect is critical, but here’s the thing: if you’ve had any career success at all, you’re probably smart enough. In fact, the correlation between success and IQ tops out somewhere around 110 to 120 IQ points. So if you’re just above average intelligence, you’re going to be fine. After that, it just becomes a matter of how well you can use leverage to multiply your effectiveness – and that comes down to leadership.

Of the characteristics I mentioned that help you to identify leaders who are likely to grow, twice as many are related to attitude, behaviors and your ability to relate to others, as opposed to your intellectual horsepower. So it’s your emotional intelligence, if you will. These attributes are:

  • Motivation to constantly learn and grow

  • Desire to take on tougher and tougher challenges

  • Regular and frequent efforts to innovate

  • Openness to ideas that aren’t your own

  • The willingness to take calculated risks to accelerate progress

  • Selflessness to make peers successful

  • The maturity to put team results ahead of your own; and

  • Openness to seek feedback from multiple sources.

Be a little thoughtful here, these are some of the characteristics that will give you a chance of being successful as a leader. However, this is really just describing some of the preconditions for being able to grow and develop. In my head, this is nothing more than the starting line.

Having run a few marathons myself back in the old days, I know that getting to the starting line can be really difficult – but it’s what you do after you get there that’s going to determine what sort of leader you become. This means developing your emotional intelligence to the point where you can confidently handle the interactions you have with the people around you:

  • How competent are you at recognising and understanding emotions?

  • How do you use emotions in the day-to-day cut and thrust of business?

  • How well do you manage your own emotions?

These are incredibly valuable skills, which are actually measurable. Doing the things you need to do to become a great leader starts here, and they have their foundations in these capabilities. Only then will you be able to do the difficult things that stretch and motivate people to deliver their best performance.


Let’s think about intellect and leadership as two separate, but closely related capabilities. They can often be in conflict with one another – but if you understand them, they can also complement and enhance each other. Unfortunately, in my experience, most senior executives lean on their intellect, judgment , and business experience much more than they rely on their leadership skills. And for the most part, their leadership repertoire remains underdeveloped and stunted.

Why would this be the case? Well, for a start, when you’re smart, hardworking, and ambitious, you can go a long way without ever getting too uncomfortable. But to lead well requires you to willingly face into some of your most deep-seated fears, and go against your inbuilt programming. Developing your intellect and judgment is a vital part of growing into larger roles at higher levels, but without the leadership skills, you’ll always have an Achilles’ heel.

I want to get really specific here with a couple of detailed examples that demonstrate how your intellect and leadership capability can often be in conflict. And if you fall on the side of intellect in these situations, the outcomes you get will be markedly inferior… Let’s start with a look at problem-solving:

When a problem needs to be solved, intellect and experience count. This can create an almost instantaneous hierarchy within a group: everyone intuitively knows who the smartest and most experienced people in the room are. As a smart, ambitious leader on the rise, your tendency will be to lead the discussion, to organize the inputs, to steer the group towards the solution set that you’ve mentally formulated, and to create a forward plan to resolve the problem. That’s what all good leaders do, right?

Well, sort of… But how they do that is crucial. When you’ve got a problem, actually solving it is only part of the story. The smart executive solves the problem for sure, but a great leader picks up many other serendipities on the way through. Let’s have a look at a few of them:

Capability building 

Now, you might have the answers, but leaving space for other people to come up with those answers is incredibly beneficial. It gives your people the opportunity to develop their own skills and to improve their own judgment . They learn to take risks to challenge other people’s ideas. They gain confidence and they build experience through this. If you’re going to build capability, you have to resist the temptation to show everyone how smart you are, which does take some personal restraint – something I learned way too late in my executive career.

Healthy debate is generated (that never would’ve started otherwise) 

You manage to bring out people’s ideas in a way that you couldn’t if you were simply directing traffic. Believe me, even if you are the smartest guy in the room, there will always be ideas you haven’t thought of, and perspectives that you don’t have access to from your experience set. These can vastly improve the eventual solution.

Talent Management

From a talent management perspective, you’re doing two things:

  • Gaining insight into who your high performers really are. When you see people in the problem solving context and you’re able to observe how they approach the issues, it sorts out the dogs from the fleas pretty quickly.

  • Helping to mitigate key person risk. The more people who have shared knowledge and capability across a broad range of situations, the less likely you are to be left with a gaping hole that can’t be filled at a critical time.

So, when it comes to problem solving, the smart executive uses his intellect and experience to solve the problem rapidly and effectively. But a great leader solves the problem and more. He builds capability, surfaces new ideas, reduces key person risk, and gets a line of sight on organizational talent. I probably don’t need to tell you which outcome is superior.

Let’s take a look at another example: what do you do when someone on your team doesn’t deliver a critical outcome? 

You’re a smart, committed executive, right? You pride yourself on always delivering what you’ve promised, and doing it to a high standard. So when someone on your team fails to do that, the natural tendency is to step in and do the job yourself… to rescue the individual who hasn’t delivered… to wallpaper over the cracks… to get the job done no matter what.

Well, that’s good, right? The job gets done, and usually pretty quickly. The outcomes are aligned to what the organization was expecting, and you get to show how good you are at doing stuff… regardless of whether or not that stuff is in your job description. Life goes on pretty much without skipping a beat.

But that’s counterproductive in so many ways, which is why really good leaders know how to handle these situations a little bit differently:

The accountability model is broken 

If people aren’t held to account for what they’ve agreed to deliver, the team’s performance will be poor. When you do someone’s work for them, you let them off the hook. They never experience any consequences for their lack of performance, which leads to a slow, but inexorable decline in the capability of the whole team.

You tacitly support substandard performance 

The rest of the team sees this, and they become demotivated and disgruntled. A-players want to work with other A-players, and when they see you propping up people who can’t do the job themselves, that’s not a team they want to be part of.

Over time, you’ll find it increasingly easy to keep your under-performers, but you won’t keep your top performers. What do you think that does to team performance? And it doesn’t matter what you tell yourself – you’ll know deep down that your team is weak.

Every minute you spend doing your people’s jobs is a minute you are not spending doing your own

If you’re not focused on doing the things your role demands, there’ll be a big gap in your performance – and the gap to the level above you becomes even wider.

You lose the opportunity to build team capability

You don’t give people the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Good leaders leave a vacuum for their people to step into. Without this, they’re never going to grow and develop the way they should.

When it comes to getting the job done and delivering outcomes, the smart executive uses his intellect and experience to make sure the job gets done every time. But a great leader will occasionally sacrifice the short-term outcome to build the long-term benefits:

  • Maintaining strong accountabilities that create execution excellence

  • Holding a high standard of performance for everyone

  • Leaving space for people to fail, learn and grow

  • Building a culture of high performance: no blame, no excuses; and

  • Making sure that your own focus is on the highest value outcomes that you can deliver.


I’m a massive believer in the synergy between intellect and leadership performance, but one thing I know for certain is this: as you move to bigger roles at higher levels, it’s your leadership capability that will enable you to maximize your own performance. And if you approach it the right way, you’ll be able to use your intelligence in concert with your leadership skills to multiply the average capability level of every person you lead. That’s incredibly powerful.

The most important thing is to develop the individual leadership capabilities that are going to enable you to do this:

  • Mastering the art of being comfortable in high conflict situations;

  • Getting over the need to be liked (the mantra of respect before popularity);

  • Working out how to operate at your level without over-functioning for your people, or inappropriately intervening in their work;

  • Knowing how to absorb high levels of ambiguity and complexity, and turning them into concrete actions for your people;

  • Upholding strong expectations for performance and behavior by setting the tone, the pace, and the standard for your team; and

  • Becoming an expert in applying the Challenge / Coach / Confront framework to get the most from your people.

These are some of the core capabilities that are going to underpin your leadership performance, but your intellect can also help you to build these capabilities.

The object to the exercise is to leverage your intellect in a more sophisticated way. It’s easy to solve a problem by doing it yourself. It’s easy to get the outcome you want if you don’t tap into your people’s experience and views, and it’s easy to tell someone the answer if you know it.

So here’s my hack: when you’re in a leadership position and you think you know the answer… STOP!.

Don’t dazzle everyone with your brilliance by explaining your elegant solution to them. Instead, learn how to take your insight and use it to phrase a really good question. There’s an old saying that Nobel Prizes aren’t awarded to the people who come up with the best answers. They’re awarded to the people who ask the best questions.

Asking great questions gives your people an opportunity to debate the issues, wrestle them to the ground, and come up with a plan. As Jocko Willink says, a plan that people feel that they own that’s only 80 percent right has a much better chance of being executed successfully than a plan that they’ve been given to execute that’s 95 percent right. So let your people feel ownership for the outcomes. Let them feel the pressure of having to produce it themselves. Let them feel the fear of the unknown, and let them feel the exhilaration of getting it right after all their initial apprehensiveness.

Get used to starting your sentences with phrases like this:

  • “I wonder what would happen if we did X?”

  • “I’m not sure how we should look at Y.”

  • “What do you think about X?”

  • “What’s your perspective on Y?” 

  • “What do you think the biggest risks are in doing Z?” 

Being smart enough to have the answers is awesome, as long as you can temper it with a strong desire to lift your people’s capability so that, in turn, they can come up with the answers too. It’s the only way to responsibly deliver value in the short term, multiply your own effectiveness, and build the future capability of your company.


  • Ep. #7: Working at the Right Level – Listen Here

  • Ep. #21: Education vs Experience – Listen Here

  • Ep. #25: The Roadmap to Exceptional Leadership Part 1 – Listen Here

  • Ep. #26: The Roadmap to Exceptional Leadership Part 2 – Listen Here

  • Ep. #28: Your Peers Are Really Smart Too – Listen Here

  • Ep. #43: People Follow Resilient Leaders – Listen Here

  • Ep. #57: Challenge, Coach, Confront – Listen Here

  • Ep. #63: Reading the Play – Listen Here

  • Ep. #131: The Emotional Toll of Leadership – Listen Here

  • Ep. #135: When Empathy Becomes Sympathy – Listen Here

  • Ep. #206: It’s STILL Respect Before Popularity – Listen Here

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