Traits of Wise Leaders

Are leaders becoming more intelligent and stupid at the same time?

It has been found that peoples IQ’s are rising by an average 9 points per generation across many countries in the world. This has been termed the Flynn Effect, after James R Flynn who did much to promote this phenomenon. So, as a global society, what do we have to show for this increase in intelligence? Solutions to many of the world’s problems, such as economic volatility, food shortages, poverty and environmental degradation still elude us.

It is often argued that many of the practices currently being demonstrated by our leaders are contributing to rather than solving these problems. Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky describe this as ‘Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis’ (Harvard Business Review, July 2009). To use their growing intelligence effectively, this article argues that leaders also need to develop their inherent wisdom.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg has defined wisdom as the use of one’s own intelligence and experience, mediated by values, toward the achievement of a common good. Without wisdom Sternberg argues that smart people are especially susceptible to fallacies such as egocentrism, omniscience, omnipotence, and invulnerability. Wise leaders have the ability, developed through openness to experience, together with insight and reflection, to discern truth and exercise good judgment. This requires clarity, authenticity, and agility.


Many leaders genuinely believe that they are able to perceive situations with absolute clarity. In reality our perceptions are distorted by a fog emanating from our own values, personality, emotions, and experiences. We in effect become conditioned to see the world not as it is but as we are. So how can we lift the fog? Through developing higher levels of awareness:

•Self Awareness- The leader becoming aware of their habitual ways of thinking, feeling and acting, often gained through the use of 1st generation psychometrics which generate a profile of their personality traits.
•Reflective Awareness- The leader reflects on their behaviour after engaging with different situations to determine if their perceptions were distorted and actions governed by their habits.
•Reflexive Awareness (Meta-awareness)- The leader is able to witness their own perception, thoughts, emotions and behaviour in the present moment.

Each stage of awareness lays the foundations for the next. Progress through the stages enables the leader to realise higher levels of consciousness and perceive situations with a higher level of clarity.

When leaders become aware of the biases of their own personality and gain greater agility they often become anxious about losing their authenticity. This is a natural emotion during the transition process where the leader begins to realise that to a large extent their personality at work as been constructed from their strengths and experiences, which have enabled them to be successful in the past. They realise that they have constructed a persona to protect their ego, which is wedding them to the past and is constraining their agility as they try to address the volatility, complexity and uncertainty of today’s work environment. Upon realising that their personality is just a construct, the leader seeks to find a deeper authenticity within. As leaders witness and take ownership of their values, thoughts, emotions, actions, and beliefs, they ask – which part of me is doing the witnessing? This witness consciousness is often described using terms such as True Self or Being. It is at this point that the leader is able to hold their personality with a light touch and has little need to defend their ego. Abraham Maslow (1962) in his book ‘Toward a Psychology of Being’ has famously described this point in adult development as ‘self actualisation’. For further information on gaining deeper authenticity please refer to our article ‘Becoming an Authentic Leader’.


Through gaining higher levels of clarity and deeper levels of authenticity a leader is now in a better position to discern the truth. The next stage in uncovering the leader’s inherent wisdom is to exercise good judgement. This requires agility in thinking, feeling and acting.

•Thinking- Most IQ tests predominantly measure ‘crystallised intelligence’ which draws on peoples past knowledge and experience. To exercise good judgement in today’s complex, volatile and uncertain world requires a high level of ‘fluid intelligence’. This type of intelligence draws on peoples’ capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge. We use the Cognitive Process Profile to measure and develop a leader’s fluid intelligence.
•Feeling- Much of what constrains a leader’s use of their fluid intelligence is their emotion. Often they become so anxious in complex and unfamiliar situations, where their crystallized intelligence is of little value, that they lose confidence in their own judgment. Leaders need to be mindful of their emotions and manage them according to the situation. This ability is often termed ’emotional Intelligence’. We use the Bar-On EQ-i to profile a leader’s level of emotional intelligence.
•Acting- When 1st generation psychometrics are overused leaders tend to hold on to their personality too tightly and subsequently become a rigid caricature of themselves. To develop greater behavioural agility leaders need to be able to transcend the constraints of their personality and contact a deeper place of authenticity associated with their core being. Self awareness beyond personality can be gained by using, what we call 2nd Generation psychometrics such as the Motivational Profile, and Value Orientations.

Leaders develop their wisdom through transcending the constraints of their personality and moving beyond their habitual, and often unconscious, behaviour. They become fully aware, agile, and grounded by their authenticity. A leader’s development of wisdom can very effectively be described as a journey. To accelerate their progress and increase the likelihood of success the leader needs to have a map of the terrain and to plan their route.
Wisdom is inherent within all leaders, they just need to uncover it. Otherwise are we all destined to be led by highly intelligent stupid people?