Identifying Successful Leaders: Book Smarts, Street Smarts, or Both?

As I started to head off on the school run with my daughters and their friends, I was intrigued by the debate the kids were getting into.

What’s more important, book smarts or street smarts?

When I got back to the office, I reached out to my friend Dr. David Weller, Business Psychologist, for his thoughts on the subject and I wanted to share with our network.

“Audrey, tell the kids I love their debate. It’s a great question to wrestle with and it’s one of those where I have to say both book smarts and street smarts are important. But the kicker is that it depends on the situation.

Countless research has clearly shown that the single best predictor of overall success is intelligence. A recent meta-analysis (study of studies) again demonstrated that IQ, or book smarts is the best predictor of success (Iddekinge et. al.; 2017). Interestingly though, motivation to perform also was quite predictive and the combination of IQ plus motivation was an extremely powerful predictor of success. The executives who make it to the top of their game have more than their share of smarts and the ability to think critically. While I have not personally tested the IQ of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sergie Brin, or Mark Zuckerburg, I assure you, they are all very intelligent.

That being said, there has also been significant research on what we call Learning Agility (Mitchinson & Morris; 2012), or the ability to learn from your experiences and apply that learning to new and first-time situations. This learning agility construct is much more akin to being street smart. I think we’ve all met really smart people who can’t make their way in the world. Some have limited people skills and are such deep experts, they end up pigeonholed into a very narrow niche where they can be successful. We have also seen people of more modest intelligence who are very savvy and street smart and do just fine in the world.

Those individuals who are fortunate to have the innate intelligence and the openness to learn new and different skills will ultimately be the most successful.”

This debate challenges us to think about how we select, develop, and promote leadership within our organizations. What should we be looking for in our leaders… highly intelligent workers? Extensive real-world experience? Both? Who can we predict will be the most successful in driving our organization forward?

Dr Weller’s answer shows that, all in all, it’s difficult to choose one side in this debate. Those who are “book smart” and those who are “street smart” each are very able to succeed in life and have skills to offer an organization, but in different ways. Highlighting the individual needs of these employees to place them in roles that align with their skillset and experiences will ultimately lead to their success.

It does, however, help us understand what characteristics we can look for to narrow our focus during a search for potential leaders. Motivation and intelligence, combined with a willingness to challenge the status quo by trying new things, the ability to learn from experiences, and find meaning in work are markers of a highly successful, stand-out individual that will help your organization thrive.

What if you were able to confidently identify and develop mindsets of your highest potential leaders so that you can insert them into critical roles to successfully lead your organization forward? There is, and David and I can work with you to build this into your leadership systems.

Audrey McGuckin works with a broad spectrum of clients to solve their toughest and most complex talent and leadership challenges. Her unique background enables her to help clients realize their strategic human capital ambitions in a practical, ‘no nonsense’ way. She has an uncanny ability to interpret business strategies and unbundle these into actionable HR and Talent Strategies that deliver tangible results for her clients. Reach out to learn more at audrey@audreymguckin.com or contact us at (727)-793-4236.

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