Is the smartest person in the room the best leader? A True North Leaders’ guide to leader intelligence.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

One of my all-time favorite thoughts. Here’s how it works:

Think: Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Both are true simultaneously.

Think: This is a disaster. Hopeless. But we can find a solution.

Think: Christianity is the only true religion. Others also have truth.

Think: I love the Chicago Bears. I like the Green Bay Packers. NO! That one can’t happen.

Let’s start here. A first-rate intelligence allows True North leaders to constantly seek new and fresh perspectives on the issues before them. It gifts them with ways to create new ideas, new systems, new products, new breakthroughs. It allows them to process information better.

So is the goal here to be the smartest person in the room at all times?

Not really. I worked for a leader who so firmly believed he was the smartest — by far. Where did that lead him? To the ash-bin of leadership history. In fact, overly-smart leaders often have tendencies that can prove detrimental on the way to their downfall:

· Constantly needing to prove how smart they are

· Constantly proving how right they are

· Often saying, “I already know that!”

· Often opining, “I’m so superior to these people; why can’t they be more like me?”

With a show of hands, who wants to work for that person? Right. No one.

But is there a happy medium between too-smart and just smart-enough to be a great leader?

If it’s true that in some way we all want to admire our leader(s), then it stands to reason that we expect them to be smarter — at least, know more than we do within our organization. After all, how else did they ascend to the corner office? But if the boss is (as our moms used to say) “too smart for his britches,” problems occur. Their communication style may seem condescending if the boss truly is overly intelligent. There may be a glaring lack of empathy. These and other distancing traits create real rifts between the leader and the rest of us.

So how smart should the effective leader be? What traits are both the result of intelligence and yet resonate with the team?

Intelligent leadership, in order to be effective leadership, must be a comprehensive compendium of traits. These leaders are effective in their work. Strategic in their leadership. And all the while, passionate and energetic social agents. These leaders cultivate their own heart, mind and soul along with those of their followers. Their own inner-core strengths overlap with their outer-core competencies and meld perfectly with their commitment to excellence. At the point where these three collide, you’ll find intelligent leadership.

Quick definitions:

· Inner-core strengths are transformational. They include traits like character, positivity in emotions and beliefs, a healthy self-concept and confidence along with a True North value system.

· Outer-core strengths are more transactional: capabilities, skills, expertise, commitment and a networked connectedness.

· Commitment to excellence. As mentioned several times in this space, excellence results from a focus on self- and corporate improvement and examination. A recognition that all we do is a form of true worship to God when offered sacrificially.

Much has been made of a trendy concept that helps explain my point: Metacognition.

Metacognition is, in simple terms, thinking about thinking. It refers, more precisely, to processes we use to plan, monitor results and assess our own understanding and performance. It’s self-reflective thinking — the ability to regulate and change these thoughts. Appreciating and applying self-analytical thinking. And incorporating an ability to alter our thoughts and behaviors.

Truly intelligent True North leaders are those whose daily life-goals include authenticity, integrity and constantly working toward God-honoring excellence. There are at least five interdependent intelligence modes expressed in these leaders:

1) Intra- and interpersonal intelligence lead to an authentic self-identity. This intelligence mode includes keen self-insight and emotional intelligence. This formula leads to confidence, humility, integrity and empathy. Herein lies the secret to an honest leader.

2) Systemic intelligence. This mode entails a mastery at crafting real time, integrated and dynamic understanding of how the leader’s enterprise interacts with surrounding and competitive environments. The Systems thinker relates to a holistic version of reality. Not a compartmentalized reductionistic world.

3) Ideation intelligence. Visualizing. Inspiring. Boundary-busters. The intellectual ability foresees and then creates a current reality from futuristic ideas. This leadership intelligence is all about imagination. It’s not about fun fantasizing, but expressing a shareable vision of the future with organizational constituents.

4) Action intelligence. Sharing a vision is one thing. Bringing it to reality is another. This intelligence mode is expressed in developers whose capabilities include creating lasting, relevant and meaningful change on an enterprise-wide level. The interaction with ideation is crucial. Seeing the future and bringing it to the present are collaborative actions.

5) Contextual intelligence. This intelligence mode is all about FIT. This leader has the ability to coalesce their worldview with their lived experiential world. They understand the context of who they are, how their organization’s and their personal values coincide and how they add up to quality and integrous decisions.

OK, time for prescription and application. Thanks, Norm, for describing how intelligent I should be as a leader. But I’m more concerned about how I should act as an intelligent leader.

Full disclosure. There is no single formula that determines whether a leader is too smart. Just as there’s no scientific test for leadership ignorance. We can just tell, can’t we? We know when the boss truly knows boss stuff — or not. But it is the behaviors of intelligence that intrigue us here:

· The intelligent leader is humble. Not just your run of the mill biblical humility, but also intellectually humble. Lording one’s intelligence over colleagues and employees never scores points. In fact, just the opposite. Actually, intellectual humility is demonstrated in the willingness to allow constructive criticism, acknowledgement that the leader might be wrong and is willing to consider alternatives proposed by others, and allow professional dissent without becoming defensive.

· The intelligent leader is meta. As discussed earlier in this blog, this self-referential behavior allows the leader to be objective and even critical of their own decisions. These leaders will often leverage this self-awareness to the benefit of their organization and themselves.

· The intelligent leader is insatiably curious. A life-long learner. Always yearning to understand better and learn more. And all for the sake of knowing. Who benefits from this proclivity? Everyone: the leader and the entire organizational system.

· The intelligent leader has the uncanny ability to diagnose the complex, simplify those challenges, and find the correct solutions. Some believe this is a genetic gift, bestowed by problem-solving parents. More likely, it’s a learned behavior — first from the family — but then honed over years of education, experience and growing expertise. Have you heard this one, “A big problem is really just a bunch of small problems wrapped into one?” Patient and accurate diagnostic skills lead to well-developed and effective solution strategies. Measure twice. Cut once.

Regardless the premium our culture places on highly intelligent people, the True North leader readily acknowledges the source of creativity, wisdom and humility: the indwelling Creator God whose Holy Spirit literally lives within us.

James offers my favorite advice on the topic:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. (1:5)

But wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. (3:17)

Biblical truth for True North leaders.

Norm Mintle

Dr. Mintle holds an earned Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He has served in executive positions across a broad range of media organizations and as a dean in two universities. This and previous blogs now provide conversation fodder for a group of True North Leaders online. Join us at True North Leadership on Facebook.

Media executive. Educator. Leader. Innovator.