Signs that an abundance of grey matter may not always be the greatest asset for managers have emerged from a new study – covered on the Independent and elsewhere – which cites intelligence as a potential roadblock to motivating people.

Carried out by researchers at the University of Lausanne, the study took the form of a ‘Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire’, in which management figures not only rated themselves, but were marked by their peers and subordinates, too.

While the study drew a correlation between intelligence and effectiveness, it noted that this link tended to break down at around the IQ-120 mark – with particularly low effectiveness occurring at IQ-128 and above. As the study suggests, the test subjects north of that threshold didn’t necessarily resort to poor techniques – they simply had trouble with marshalling good ones.

Among the resulting flaws were that subjects i) wouldn’t simplify tasks; ii) couldn’t grasp why subordinates found certain tasks difficult, and iii) were often unhelpfully verbose. As such, the researchers concluded, these leaders “suffer from too much of a good thing”.

The research chimes with a recent article at, in which a Google management development executive notes that high-performing employees don’t necessarily make good managers. Does this mean that intelligence is an overrated virtue among leaders – obscuring other qualities that recruiters should value?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James says: “Judging by my own research in this field, there are nine, legitimate markers for intelligence, and IQ is only one of them. But the interesting thing about IQ is that there’s been controversy over its criteria from day one, which was decades ago. Essentially, IQ is a flawed gauge. So, just focusing on that one aspect in isolation could be incredibly misleading.”

James explains: “In leadership and management, we most often hear about emotional intelligence. And when you think about it, if you’re so ‘bright’ that you are unable to explain something clearly, and yet cannot understand why you are not understood, you are clearly lacking in emotional intelligence – because you’re missing those cues. You’re missing that essential, relational skill, whereby you should be able to sense, and empathise with, that person’s confusion and their struggle to absorb the information. You ought to be able to ask that person to help you help them deal with what they’re experiencing.

“When Dr Meredith Belbin devised his team roles system in the early 1980s, he came up with a diagnostic to spot really intelligent people, whom he dubbed ‘plants’. He thought the secret to any team must be that if you put a group of these people together, they’d be formidable. But in fact, they proved incapable of working together. That absolutely essential ability to relate to the people around them been left out of the equation.

He adds: “Extolling IQ as a totemic factor in someone’s makeup is very one-dimensional. Leaders need a lot more under their belts than simply the knack for solving complex puzzles. They require a baseline level of empathy, which underpins emotional intelligence, and then a whole other toolkit around that. Indeed, if you take a look at the nine different types of intelligence – as identified by US psychologist Howard Gardener – that will give you a sense of how this is a multifaceted quality to be seen in the round. Not just a number.

“If we prize only one type of intelligence above all others, and there’s an excess of it, then sooner or later we will get the feeling that something is missing.”

For further thoughts on what it takes to generate effective collaboration, check out the Institute’s teamworking resources