Leadership Myth #1 - Great Leaders Are More Intelligent
The notion that one must be highly intelligent to lead effectively is a myth. There are numerous examples that identify highly effective leaders who were only average or lower in intelligence.
Lou Holtz has been called one of the best motivators and leaders in the history of sports. In his famous videotape Do Right2 he admits in his typical humorous style that he was very low on the intelligence scale. First he revealed that when he graduated from High School he ranked 234 out of a class of 278. He said, "That didn't bother me, but it did upset me when the principal said it was a rather stupid class overall."
He recalls the guidance counselor asking him if he was going to work in the foundry or the steel mill. He told her he was going to go to Kent State University. She shot back that he didn't have the academic ability to succeed and predicted he would flunk out. He said, "You don't think I'm very smart do you?" Her response was imprinted on his mind for the rest of his life. She said, "Lou Holtz, a lot of people don't know what's going on, but you don't even suspect anything's going on."
With less than average intelligence, he was able to rack up a winning record before retiring that would make any leader proud. He took over six college teams in his career: The College of William & Mary, North Carolina, Minnesota, Arkansas, Notre Dame, and South Carolina. He never inherited a team with a winning record. He never failed to take that team to a bowl game by the second year at the latest. It was not intelligence that brought about the change; it was the other ingredients in leadership. His philosophy of leadership was disarmingly simple. It had only three rules:
1. Do what is right
2. Do the best you can
3. Treat others as you would like to be treated
Doing right things and avoiding wrong things enhances one's self-image. This is the most basic rule for behaving in an ethical manner. Ethical leadership can be boiled down to two words: Do Right.
Doing the best you can simply means not settling for less than the best a person is capable of doing, and that includes the leader as well. If a leader does the best he or she can and demands that much from everyone else, it really covers the motivational aspects of the job.
Lou's final rule is simply the Golden Rule. If we hold others with the same esteem we hold ourselves, then they will recognize that and respond in kind. Imagine a world where a leader actually followed the Golden Rule at all times. Nearly all of the problems with low morale and dissatisfaction would vanish.
I actually have trouble with the Golden Rule if we take it literally. The conundrum is that other people might not want me to treat them like I would like to be treated. That sounds convoluted, but it is basically sound. Imagine I am a kind of person who loves to churn out work. I like to get up very early in the morning and get 4 hours of work done before most people get out of bed. I heap work on myself because getting things accomplished makes me feel fulfilled. If I dump piles of work on top of other people because that's how I would like to be treated, they are not going to be pleased.
We could modify the Golden Rule to read "Treat others like they would like to be treated," but that doesn't work either. Imagine trying to follow that rule in the real world. A leader would instantly go broke by giving workers huge sums of money, lots of vacation time, and cushy offices. No, you can't always treat people they way they want to be treated. So, how do we work with Lou Holtz's third rule? It's simple: Treat people the right way. Of course, we now have to define what that means.Most of my students start out thinking it is best to treat everyone the same. That is clearly defensible from a discrimination standpoint, but is this the best policy? I think not. Here we run into a major problem. Some sailors really enjoy manning Crow's Nest and scanning the water for hazards. For them it is a special treat and an honor. Others can become deathly sick due to the extreme movement and the height. The first thing to recognize is that treating people right does not mean treating everyone the same way.
As long as we focus on the intent of Lou Holtz's three points, they make a great philosophy of leadership. It has worked for him over several decades, and it can work for you if you choose to follow his specific formula. Regardless, Lou's rules demonstrate how a simple and logical set of rules can streamline the complex business of leadership and make it possible for the masses to access the "magic." The complexity of day-to-day leadership decisions can always be boiled into these three behaviors, so the formula can deal with complexity even though it is simple. You do not need to be brilliant to be a good leader. Leadership need not be difficult or complex to be effective. This theme will be repeated numerous times in this book.
Another example relating to intelligence is John Chambers, CEO of Cisco. John has been hailed as the best boss in America. People who have been lucky enough to work at Cisco have had the pleasure of riding a modern corporate success to personal wealth. In an interview with Diane Sawyer for ABC's 20/20, John admits that he nearly flunked out of grade school because he couldn't keep up with the work.3 He had dyslexia and was slower than other students to comprehend the assignments. Most people considered him the dunce of the class, yet John went on to become a billionaire and one of the most successful corporate leaders of our time. I love how he puts the issue of leadership into simple terms during his interview:
I basically take things as they are. Life is not very complex. I am just impatient about my vision. -John Chambers
Note the disarming simplicity of this philosophy. Of course the philosophy is only the start. John translates his passion into the hearts and minds of his employees through countless actions and rules for himself and his key leaders that he follows religiously. John understands the value of consistency and is expert at reinforcing candor. Once he gets on a theme about his own behaviors, he never, ever, waivers from that path. Whether it means sitting in a cubicle rather than a plush office or flying coach, he models his values for all to see every day. He also models exceptional transparency on a daily basis with all his stakeholders.
On the other side of the scale is Bill Clinton. As a 1968 Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and graduate of Yale Law School, he demonstrated his incredible intelligence. Many people see him as a great leader. However, he certainly did not carve out the leadership moral high ground for our nation when he publicly forgot the meaning of the word "is" and became only the second president in the history of our nation to be impeached. His leadership could be put into question, not because of his IQ, but because he was arrogant enough to believe he could trick the American people into believing a lie. He might have even pulled it off, if it were not for the stain on a particular blue dress. The tragedy is that even when he was caught in the lie, he continued to deny it publicly and attempted to excuse the whole mess as just a temporary lapse in judgment. He modeled the opposite of candor and transparency. The Congress and the American people would not buy it.
So the first myth, that good leadership means being highly intelligent does not seem to hold in many cases. Of course, people of extremely low intelligence do not make good leaders because they don't have the capacity. Beyond that, we should not try to paint a strong correlation between exceptional leadership and level of intelligence. A reasonably strong mind is all that is required for greatness.