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« The Arts Litany Redux | Main | Free Reads -- Joel Engel on Leadership and Smarts Redux »

May 28, 2003

Free Reads -- Joel Engel on Leadership and Smarts


I don't know what you encountered, but for one stretch during the 2000 election campaign, it seemed that I was surrounded by people announcing that they'd finally settled on the definitive, not-to-be-contested reason to vote for Gore. They were going to vote for Gore anyway, but now they could really strut; their rationale was bulletproof. What was it? That Gore is smart, and Bush is dumb. Conversation over, and voting lever pulled.

I was aghast. Leaving aside the matter of how smart Gore actually is (debatable, apparently) and how intellectually-challenged Bush is, and leaving aside whether or not you're wild about GW Bush generally, it seemed, and still seems, to me like a ludicrous argument. To what extent can raw IQ be said to add much of anything to a person's leadership abilities? Based on my own modest experience, I'd say that adequate-to-modestly-bright is probably the best range for a leader's intelligence. I'd go so far as to say that IQ points beyond that range should be counted as a deficit -- or at the very least looked at warily.

Should every organization be run by its brainiest member? (Should any organization be run by its brainiest member?) Many of the hyperbrainy people I've known, fond though I've been of some of them, have been flakes, whackos, and sleazebags. Intellectual vanity runs rampant among them, and horse sense is hard to find. It's not hard to understand why. All that extra brain wattage demands release and stimulation -- which often leads to a fascination with complexity for its own sake, as well as a tendency to complicate matters just for the intellectual thrill of it.

And then there are the moral and human questions. It's been a fact of my life -- and not one that I was eager or pleased to discover -- that many of the members of the media and art elites I sometimes brush shoulders with have been some of the most reprehensible people I've known, while many of the smalltown Republicans I grew up with are decent, generous and trustworthy. Flashingly, dazzlingly facile? No. But solid? You bet. Who's the better choice to lead crowds into battle: a quick, self-regarding, self-righteous sleazeball, or a trustworthy, brave straightshooter?

Plus, hey, leadership itself. Take an aircraft carrier. Would you really want the most intelligent person on it to be placed in command? And what if that person were -- as seems likely to me -- a pimply geek who hides out in the radar room and can't even bring himself to communicate adequately with his colleagues there? Thanks, but I'll place my vote instead (assuming such a choice exists) for someone who can see the big picture, and who has trustworthy gut feelings, a clear sense of what needs to be done, a solid moral footing, and a willingness to take responsibility and expose him/herself to personal risk. A little sophistication mixed in with all that? Sure, why not? But I'm not holding my breath.

Joel Engel writes a good piece along these lines for the Weekly Standard. Ain't it nice when someone else does a good job of putting into words something you've been thinking and feeling? Saves mucho time and energy.

Sample passage:

The best and the brightest, as we learned from JFK's advisers, offer little protection against absolute foolishness--and may, perhaps, be more susceptible to it, given the anecdotal evidence suggesting that brilliance and common sense are inversely correlated. It's no wonder Castro hoped Bush wouldn't be "as stupid as he seems." For 40 years the dictator has been surrounded and visited by brilliant people who swear that he's brilliant and benevolent--and if Bush were indeed a dimwit, he might see right through Castro and conclude that all those people willing to brave sharks, drowning, dehydration, and firing squads to escape from Cuba actually recognize something that the dictator's brilliant admirers do not.

Maybe this is just a matter of my own limitations, but it seems to me bizarre that such points even need to be made. But evidently they do, and Engel does it well. His piece is readable here.



posted by Michael at May 28, 2003


Part of the problem with being too damned intelligent might be an unwillingness to ask questions combined with the certainty that you can do everything best yourself--so why delegate. A good leader of medium intelligence doesn't know everything and doesn't want to. He just asks the pertinent questions, finds out who is the best at solving the problems, and then sticks them on the job.

It helps if he's a "people person", too. Highly intelligent & technical people seem to be more introverted. Has anyone done a study correllating intro/extroversion to IQ scores?

Posted by: Nate on May 28, 2003 2:06 PM

FDR ---"a second-rate intellect but a first-rate temperament"

"He was not, it is widely agreed, a deep thinker. Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous assessment that FDR possessed "a second-rate intellect but a first-rate temperament" is widely quoted-though in fact...."

Posted by: David on May 28, 2003 5:16 PM

I've always found this American obsession with IQ rather unproductive. I concede that an IQ test might be helpful in a minority of cases (for instance, if an exceptionally smart adolescent was engaging in delinquent behavior) and I also concede that IQ tests are reasonably adequate measures of intelligence, but what good does it do the vast majority of the public to carry one of these numbers around? It seems to me that knowing one's IQ would tend to be a disincentive to a talented individual, and it certainly seems to bring out the worst in some of those who have moderately high scores. What always gets me is that so many of them don't seem to have done the Math: "Okay, so you're in the top 2 percent, so are 5.4 million other Americans. Duh!"

I'm just glad Noam Chomsky isn't running the country (although I think it would be rather good if Marilyn Vos Savant was).

Posted by: Graham Lester on May 28, 2003 5:50 PM

Ah, indeed there is some truth there although I suspect some of those geniuses are more than a little quirky because the people around them have made them feel shunned, rejected, or intimidated.

As for IQ tests, I find them culturally skewed and completely useless. I'm probably biased though--I bombed the only test I had taken (when I was younger and did not have a very good grasp of English).

Posted by: sya on May 28, 2003 6:22 PM

Q: How do you know when someone's hyper-brainy?

A: When they've not learned to act like normal folk most of the time, i.e., when they are flakes, whackos, and sleazebags.

Posted by: Will Duquette on May 28, 2003 9:12 PM

Since it's been a few years since I read "The Best and the Brightest" can anyone refresh my memory of who first called Kennedy's advisors that? Was the original author of this description serious or mocking? I mean, my impression of that crew (R. Mcnamara especially) is of a group with no "street smarts" at all. (They were so proud of having resolved the Cuban missile crisis when they held, essentially, all the cards.) I was quite amused to hear from my father, who worked in the auto industry during Robert Mcnamara's tenure at Ford, that Mcnamara was regarded as both personally odd and as the maker of very odd business decisions in the 1950s-- before he graduated to playing with people's lives.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 30, 2003 9:07 AM

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