The Evolution of Leadership Intelligence

Meeting the high demand for effective leadership requires a special type of intelligence, one that has evolved far beyond traditional IQ.


The demand for effective leadership is at an all-time high as we move through times of rapid change and uncertainty. According to a recent Korn Ferry study, many companies are concerned about not having the right leaders in place or a sufficient pipeline of talent. The research conducted by DDI in their 2021 Global Leadership Forecast reported similar findings, with 89% of surveyed companies stating they do not have a “strong” or “very strong” leadership bench, reflecting the lowest ratings over the past 10 years. The shortage is not of individuals in leadership roles, it’s having the right individuals in those roles. Studies have shown that the skills and intelligence it takes to be an effective leader have evolved, along with how intelligence is generally defined.

The original meaning of intelligence dates back to the 14th century, when it was broadly defined as “the highest faculty of the mind” and the “capacity to comprehend general truths.” It wasn’t until 1905 that Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon introduced a more abbreviated meaning through the creation of their Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale. This in turn led to Lewis Terman’s adaptation of the scale and the creation of the broadly recognized intelligent quotient (IQ). The original purpose of the scale was simply to help identify students who needed additional help at school, but over time the resulting IQ has been used in much broader applications. Although Binet’s work ultimately established the foundation for this reduction of intelligence down to a single IQ number, research has shown his high respect for the diversity of intelligence and his concern that IQ was unable to yield a truly comprehensive measure of intelligence. He was keenly aware of his original purpose for the scale and that it was designed to measure certain cognitive competencies that were focused on pattern recognition, math, memory and processing speed. 

When looking to define intelligence beyond the limits of IQ, Binet described it as the fundamental faculty of judgment, stating, To judge well, to comprehend well, to reason well, these are the essential activities of intelligence… Indeed the rest of the intellectual faculties seem of little importance in comparison with judgment.” Binet’s research and perspectives, along with recognition of how intelligence was originally defined, invites a deeper analysis of the formal research conducted on the diversity of intelligence.

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner captured the diversity of intelligence in his theory of multiple intelligences (MI). He recognized that “the conventional concept of intelligence was too narrow and restrictive, and measures of IQ often miss out on other intelligences that an individual may possess.” The theory established research-based criteria that enabled each intelligence to be distinguished from mere personality traits. The MI theory also clarified that although individuals possess all of the recognized intelligences, the level within each is unique based on an individual's background and experiences. Using the established criteria, the MI theory formally recognizes eight independent forms of intelligence. 

See also: Creating Room for Innovation

Theory of Multiple Intelligences

It is through this spectrum that we can appreciate the true diversity of intelligence. The comprehensive definition recognizes the unique expression of an individual’s faculty for comprehension, reason and judgment.

In his book, "Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century," Gardner uses the MI theory to highlight the areas of intelligence that are important for individuals in leadership positions. His research supported that intrapersonal, interpersonal and linguistic dimensions make up the triad of intelligence that is crucial for effective leadership.

Leadership Intelligence

Intrapersonal Intelligence

Intrapersonal intelligence is the capacity to know yourself. As Aristotle stated, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” This part of leadership intelligence is reflected in the ability to be introspective, inwardly focused and intuitive. The ability to take the time to slow down, reflect on your thoughts, emotions and motivations is what determines your level of intrapersonal intelligence. 

Interpersonal Intelligence

The importance of interpersonal intelligence to leadership is eloquently captured in the words of Colin Powell. “Leadership is all about the people. It is not about organizations. It is not about plans. It is not about strategies. It is all about people motivating people to get the job done. You have to be people-centered.” Very simply, there is no opportunity to be a leader without having people to engage, and your level of interpersonal intelligence is how effective you are in that engagement.

Linguistic Intelligence

Completing the triad of leadership intelligence, is linguistic intelligence. It all comes down to communication, the foundation and framework for all engagement with others. As a leader, your ability to express yourself through spoken and written languages is what determines your level of linguistic intelligence.  

See also: The Key to ‘Augmented Intelligence’

Although displayed here in three equal parts, the three forms of intelligence exist in varying degrees based on each individual’s background, experiences and development. The research has shown that those who have developed high levels of intelligence within these areas are the ones found to be most effective in their roles. 

Meeting the high demand for effective leaders requires individuals in those roles who recognize that true leadership intelligence has evolved far beyond IQ. Leaders must take the time to reflect on individual competencies in each of these areas of intelligence and make the commitment to the personal development that is needed. These are the leaders who will effectively meet the needs of their teams and help their organizations maintain success through challenging times.

Christopher Linke

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Christopher Linke

Christopher Linke, CPCU, is the assistant vice president of underwriting for a Fortune 500 property & casualty insurance company.

He serves on the advisory board for Georgia Diversity Council and as the co-chair for the GADC Communications Committee.

He graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University with a BS in business, earned his MS in organizational psychology from the University of Hartford and is enrolled in the psychology of leadership graduate certificate program at Cornell University.

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