How Important Is “Executive Intelligence” for Leaders?
Leadership talent is enjoying a perceived "seller's market," says Jim Heskett. As we select and train future leaders for all levels of our organizations, how much effort do we really spend assessing executive intelligence as opposed to personality and style? What do YOU think? Key concepts include:
- According to Justin Menkes, executive intelligence is the ability to digest, often with the help of others, large amounts of information in order to form important decisions.
- Menkes says, "Personality is not a differentiator of star talent. It is an individual's facility for clear thinking or intelligence that largely determines their leadership success."
- What do you think is the relative importance of executive intelligence, style, and personality in effective leaders?
Judging from the number of responses to the July column, Justin Menkes, author of the book Executive Intelligence, appears to have tapped into a hot issue with his concern that what he terms "executive intelligence" is underrated, under-measured, and under-experienced in the selection and development of leaders. Some took issue with his definition, a few disagreed with his main thesis, and a number suggested the importance of executive intelligence as only one ingredient in leadership success.
Stephen Burkett said: "… I find that the core of the issue remains the definition of executive intelligence … Executive intelligence is less about number-crunching power or one's grasp of advanced concepts, and more about evaluating situations and taking appropriate action." Quinton van Eeden added, "Executive intelligence seems to be the sum of the parts—emotional intelligence, IQ, personality, values, and experience … A demonstration of executive intelligence must lie in the demonstrable ability to act and execute." Paul Jackson took us to the next step in commenting, "Once defined, how do we measure executive intelligence? Once measured, how do we assess its impact or usefulness?" And, we might add, how do we incorporate it into our everyday assessment of potential or actual leadership talent?
There was a full range of opinions regarding the importance of EI, perhaps in part due to the breadth with which the term was defined in each case. For example, Rowland Freeman opined, "Intelligence is of value, but more important is demonstrated common sense. Some of the most intelligent leaders I have known were failures at leadership." As Malvin Bernal put it, "Executive intelligence will only guarantee a sound processing of information that produces decisions … Execution is the basic ingredient that makes a great leader." On the other hand, Philip Derrow argued, "Executive intelligence, particularly as Mr. Menkes defines it, is, I believe, the most important component for long-term leadership effectiveness … Three words that best describe effective people in any organization: smart and happy. Both the order and the conjunction are important . . . ." Harry Tucci went even further, saying: "The concept of executive intelligence is a very useful measure of success … When it comes to meeting earnings and Street expectations I'll take the manager with his nose deep in a book any day."
Akram Boutros, along with many others, argued for balance in our assessment of the importance of EI, pointing out that "both executive intelligence and instincts are essential. Executive intelligence, however, must precede executive instinct. That is to say, analytics should tell the story; experience should guide the results." John Pullen posited that "The most effective executives have a unique balance of good leadership skills (adaptable personality and style) and the ability to think about issues from a systems-oriented, conceptual perspective … It's not one or the other."
The issue of recognizing the trait arose as well. Le Anh Tuan commented, "The reality is that people … are so busy that they usually fail to examine and see how 'executive intelligent' a leader is . . . ." Terry Rodgers agreed: "The problem is that we are not generally well equipped to evaluate and identify the difference between executive intelligence and personal style. Spotting the fraudsters … is an issue . . . ." This prompts the questions: Has executive intelligence been well-enough defined? How can an organization, beginning with its board of directors, insure that EI is being factored into the selection and development of leaders? What implications does this have for business school curricula? What do you think?
The impact of one individual on the performance of an organization has long been debated, and the debate has focused most recently on the controversy over compensation for CEOs. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton cite studies that maintain that no more than 10 percent of the performance of an organization can be attributed to its leader as opposed to other forces. Some might argue that that's a lot. There is also debate about the most important traits of leadership. Some recent studies continue to examine the personality and style attributes of effective leaders. Others are giving more emphasis to certain forms of intelligence.
Jim Collins concluded in his classic study, Good to Great, that among the most important attributes of leaders, people who John Kotter maintains achieve "extremely useful change," was the right mix of humility and a drive for success. More recently, Collins has added to his list (after studying successful leaders in nonprofit organizations) "legislative leadership," the ability to create coalitions both within and outside of organizations. While concluding that leaders have less control than most people think, Pfeffer and Sutton advise them to "act as if they are in control" and "behave in ways that cause others to believe in the possibility of success of both the organization and the leader."
In his recent book, Executive Intelligence, Justin Menkes proposes another set of hypotheses, among them that too much emphasis has been given to personality and style and too little to types of intelligence that enhance leadership performance. He argues that "when it comes to predicting work performance, cognitive-ability tests have been demonstrated to be approximately ten times as powerful as personality assessments. . . . Personality is not a differentiator of star talent. It is an individual's facility for clear thinking or intelligence that largely determines their leadership success." Menkes places his bets on an individual's "executive intelligence," the ability to digest, often with the help of others, large amounts of information in order to form important decisions that produce useful action with the right amount of deliberation.
These sets of views complement one another. But just how much effort do we place on assessing "executive intelligence" as opposed to personality and style in selecting and training those we hope will lead at all levels of organizations? Menkes claims that executive intelligence, as opposed to knowledge (which is more a matter of experience), can be developed through repeated solving of new, unfamiliar problems using information, both relevant and irrelevant, provided for the purpose. K. Anders Ericsson, in the recently published Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, has concluded in addition that the most effective ways of developing this kind of capability involve constant exposure to specific goal setting and immediate feedback.
In your experience, what is the relative importance of executive intelligence, style, and personality in effective leaders? What importance do these findings have for the selection of candidates for, and the design and execution of, formal (MBA) and on-the-job programs for developing leaders? Will they eventually help relieve the perceived "seller's market" in leadership talent? What do you think?