Smart Is Not Enough

Intelligence is over-rated.  Most jobs, even high level jobs, can be done successfully by people who do not attend Mensa meetings.

Functional skill includes intelligence but it also includes many other factors that are not so easily defined.  Leadership, discipline, curiosity, creativity, ability to communicate, empathy and persistence come to mind.

There may be careers where 99th percentile and up intelligence is required but once you are outside mathematics and scientific research, the other skills dominate.

It is a truism that in business capable leaders hire people who are smarter than they are.  The ideal is to hire people with intelligence, energy and integrity.  These people can motivate the business and the leader just rides herd.  Warren Buffet has pointed out that intelligence and energy without integrity will kill you, so look for the whole package.

I suppose that in a business, perfectly organized on the hire smarter people metric, the chairman would be the least intelligent person in the organization.  Okay, so every good idea has a practical limit.

How intelligent does the president of the United States need to be.   The incumbent is clearly smarter than he needs to be and that can often get him off on tangents.  Jimmy Carter was similar.  When you can see and understand more, practical sometimes seems too mundane.  Decisions become harder because they are more nuanced.

Bill Clinton is certainly a super-mind with the credentials to prove it, but he had a practical side too.  Reagan, the Bushes and Nixon were probably not as smart but they could hire effectively and they could get things done.

We all want our children to be smart but there is a limit to what works.  In most careers a student with a solid B+ average and a wide range of other skills is probably a better hire than a narrow A++ candidate.

There are not many fields where smart by itself will carry you far.  As Tim Notke has said.

“Hard work beats talent when talent does not work hard.”


Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

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