Only The Brainiest Succeed

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Volume 44. No. 5. Sept-Oct, 2004. pp 61-62.

When I ask successful corporate executives how they got where they are, a common answer is, “I was lucky—I was in the right place at the right time” or, “I was working with someone who took me under his wing.” or, “My project hit the market before the competition and I was a hero.”

Is success just a matter of luck? No question, luck always plays a role. But in the words of Louis Pasteur, the great French biologist, “fortune favors the prepared mind.” Corporate climbers most likely to succeed make the best use of their brains and personality. In some of my other writings, I have discussed personality types. In this article, I shall focus on the kinds of brains demonstrated by successful people in research technology organizations.

There is no lack of advice about how to succeed in business. However, while some advice for managers hasn’t changed much since I first worked with companies like IBM, AT&T and HP more than a generation ago, there are differences in the kind of intellectual abilities you need to get ahead today. In fact, during the past decade psychologists have fundamentally revised our understanding of intelligence.

Different Kinds of Intelligence

For most of the 20th century, intelligence meant IQ, measured by tests that focused on memory, logic, and analysis. The work of psychologists Howard Gardner at Harvard, Robert Sternberg at Yale and Daniel Goleman describes other kinds of intelligence that make a difference to a manager’s effectiveness. Goleman popularized the concept of emotional intelligence as having to do with self-control, self understanding and empathy. Sternberg contrasted analytic intelligence with practical intelligence or street smarts and creative intelligence which includes imagination and aesthetic sensibility.

Analytic intelligence—the kind that gets you high scores on the SAT or graduate record exam—used to be the major ticket to higher education and the academic credentials essential to getting hired and moving up in a technology company. Of course, street smarts were always useful for knowing who to trust and whom to butter up. No one prospers without knowing how to manage the boss. But most promotions depended on analytic, problem solving skills. In companies I worked with like the Bell Labs and the MITRE corporation, members of the technical staff were measured and promoted essentially on technical competence.

Recent research shows that many people with high IQs don’t do so well anymore. Sternberg writes, “There is a small but positive correlation between IQ and various kinds of measured success, but at the top, the relationship weakens. And people with extremely high IQs often don’t achieve great success because they try to overcapitalize on their analytic intelligence.” (1)

Why has analytic intelligence become less important? There are various possible reasons. To make sense of complex information flows, people need pattern recognition skills and the creative ability to think up new concepts. As companies put a higher value on teamwork and customer relationships, interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence become more important. In the past, managers could intimidate subordinates and joke at their expense. In today’s diverse workplace, insensitivity and verbal abuse is not tolerated. As the market demands continual innovation, creative intelligence—imagination and design capability—makes a difference.

The Need for Leadership

But more than any other factor, I believe that what has changed the most is the need for leadership in organizations. To succeed in business, you need to have the brains as well as the personality that make you an effective leader. While leadership may call for decision-making, strategy, negotiation and communication, intellectual abilities and emotional attitudes determine how well we learn and exercise these competencies.

Why has leadership become so important? Traditional management was designed to fit relatively stable industrial bureaucracies. The one minute manager could set goals and delegate their implementation within functional silos. But this is no longer the best management model for organizations that must continually adapt to new processes, technologies and global markets. Bureaucracy has never been the right model for innovation which has always required strong leadership. When bureaucratic managers were designing smooth running processes, the best R&D leaders were firing up cross-functional teams to reach beyond themselves, to create something great, like the invention of hte transistor at Bell Labs.

Different Brains

What has changed is that different kinds of leadership are now needed within large corporations: strategic, operational, team, knowledge, functional, network. What type of intelligence do these roles require? Is there a leadership prototype that fits all of these roles equally well? From my experience, the answer is “no”. For optimal effectiveness, each of these roles calls for different types of brains as well as personalities.

Innovative R&D leaders need street smarts as well as creative intelligence. Consider the difference between the researchers at Xerox PARC who had the imagination to develop the desktop user interface for computers, and Steve Jobs who had both the creative and practical intelligence to turn it into a marketable product. To some degree Jobs also had a type of intelligence I’ve observed in the most successful innovative leaders: strategic intelligence. This is the kind of intelligence needed to both develop and implement a vision, to transform an invention into an industry.

Strategic Intelligence

The elements of strategic intelligence are interrelated. They combine aspects of analytic, practical and creative intelligence. They include foresight, the ability to see future trends by scanning for dynamic factors in the present. They also include systems thinking, viewing parts in relation to the whole, focusing on how parts interact and evaluating them inrelation to how well they serve the system’s purpose. They include visioning, the ability to design an organization as a social system that can make real a business strategy, and the ability to motivate people to power that organization (3). One can argue that Jobs has been weakest on partnering, both internally at Apple and with other companies. The willingness to partner more might have allowed Apple to dominate the PC market in the way that Intel led by Andy Grove has dominated processing.

Partnering strengthens those innovative leaders who are strong on some aspects of strategic intelligence and weak on others. A good example is Bill Gates, who partners with Bill Ballmer, a world-class motivator. In contrast to the need for strategic intelligence at the top Jay Galbraith, a researcher and consultant at the University of Southern California, shows that the most effective network managers at companies like IBM and Nestlé are strong on emotional intelligence; they are able to facilitate communication and cooperation across organizational and national boundaries, even when they don’t have formal authority. Their effectiveness requires understanding differences in context and culture and building trust.

Strategic intelligence, especially systems thinking, is in much shorter supply than the other kinds of intelligence. Can it be learned? There appears to be a genetic component to all types of intelligence, but in my experience, all can be developed. Sternberg provides advice on developing practical and creative intelligence in his book, Goleman offers some ideas for improving emotional intelligence (3). Together with Russell Ackoff of the Wharton School, I have run workshops on developing systems thinking through visioning.

These new concepts of intelligence do not describe all the abilities that make leaders successful. Some of the qualities of mind clearly develop through experience and learning. These have to do with wisdom, good judgment and decision-making. Many of a leader’s decisions have to do with ethical judgments, which not only require practical intelligence but also have to do with a person’s values, philosophy and religious beliefs.

Courage Above All

Good leadership today requires all of these intellectual capabilities. But in many instances, how they are exercised depends, above all, on the leader’s courage. Ethical and moral intelligence can be developed by study, but it is one thing to know what’s right, it’s another to take risks or do what is right even when there is no guarantee of success. But that brings us into the realm of personality, beyond the theme of this article.


(1) Sternberg, Robert. Successful Intelligence, Plume, 1997. p 134.

(2) Maccoby, Michael. The Productive Narcissist, The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership , Broadway Books, 2003.

(3) Goleman, Daniel et. al. Primal Leadership. Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence, Harvard Business School Press, 2004.

TMG Home | Articles | Books | Associates | Contact Info

Richard Margolies, Vice President |

This web site is maintained by Maria.
Copyright © 2023 The Maccoby Group. All rights reserved.