In 1983, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner challenged the way intelligence had traditionally been measured. Until then, the most prevalent view would have been that people with strong logical and analytical skills were the intelligent ones, the ones who lacked those strengths were often branded unintelligent. Gardner proposed that there could be seven different ways of being intelligent (eventually, an eighth was added).
His theory was that people could have different kinds of intelligence, that could be visual/spatial; Kinaesthetic; Verbal/Linguistic; Musical; Logical/Mathematical; Interpersonal; Intrapersonal; or Naturalistic. His theory had important implications for education. It meant that teachers had to change the way they viewed students in the classroom, the way they taught, and the way they measured students. Could there be parallels for us in leadership, and lessons from the multiple-intelligences view, that benefit the way we think of and exercise our leadership?
Am I a leader? The Multiple-Intelligences theory essentially flipped the question that educators had to ask. As Ken Robinson put it, we need to stop asking children “How intelligent are you?” and start asking “How are you intelligent?”. The underlying belief behind this switch in perspective, is that every child is intelligent, but in a different way.
Believe in the special strengths
The onus is on the educator to help children discover, and then develop, that intelligence. As business students today, we have to renew in ourselves the belief that each of us has leadership qualities, but perhaps in different ways. Each of us may have a different leadership quotient. We do ourselves a disservice if we use a narrow lens and then conclude that we are not leaders.
A quote, often credited to Einstein, can help us here. “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” An important part of our leadership journey is becoming aware of what these special strengths are. In what situations do I excel, when do I feel that I am in the peak performance zone, what actions and decisions of mine have led to exceptional results? With each of these questions and reflections, we can gain a better understanding of our leadership quotient and the way that it is best demonstrated.
What is my leadership quotient? Our traditional view of leaders has been that of the ultra-confident individual, the power-communicator, the motivator, the analytical thinker. It’s time to broaden the dimensions we use to measure leadership. Maybe each of us has a primary leadership intelligence or quotient. Maybe for some of us, our communication skill is our strength, for some of us, our ability to invent and be creative, for others our ability to forge and nurture relationships.
There could be different dimensions to the way we view and express our leadership. Peter Drucker suggested one dimension when he urged leaders to reflect on whether they were readers or listeners. In his seminal article, “Managing Oneself,” Peter Drucker gives the example of Dwight Eisenhower, who excelled in his role as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War 2. At press conferences, he showed total command of whatever question he was asked. Ten years later, when he was President, it was a different story, with rambling and distracted answers.
Drucker analyses this difference, saying that Eisenhower didn’t realise that he was a reader, not a listener. In his earlier role, he had the benefit of written briefing notes from his aides and he read and mastered them and was in full control of his meetings.
As President, he succeeded two listeners — Roosevelt and Truman — and may have felt he had to follow them in their style of free-wheeling press conferences, but because he was a reader, not a listener, he failed on that path. Am I a reader or a listener ? Can I use that knowledge to understand how I can better make my leadership count? Similarly there may be other dimensions of a leadership quotient — the fact-driven leader vs the intuitive one, the product leader vs the people one, the marathoner vs the sprinter.
A cautionary note is that we should avoid labelling ourselves too narrowly. Gardner pushed against labelling people based on specific intelligences. His goal, he said, was to empower learners, not lock them into a single mode of learning. In the same way, while we must be conscious of our primary leadership quotient, we should also be aware of other ways we must necessarily exhibit our leadership. This awareness and discovery process should empower our leadership, not trap it. We would do well, though, to play to our strengths.
Playing to one’s strengths
A big benefit from this view of leadership, is that I should perform in my strong zone. Very often, in organisations, a lot of time, effort and focus goes into fixing people’s weaknesses. Perhaps both organisation and individual are better served if we can focus on our strengths. Imagine a genius batsman like Virat Kohli or Steve Smith, being asked to bowl all day and spending all their time in the nets perfecting their bowling action. That sounds ridiculous, but organisations are filled with such situations.
An extraordinary inventor is put into a role where he needs to manage people — an area he may struggle with. A natural ‘relationship’ person is confined to a role requiring data analysis and reporting. A high-energy consultant, who enjoys and excels at starting things off, is put in charge of maintaining a steady-state business operation. The square-peg-in-a-round-hole approach creates a lost opportunity for both the organisation and the individual. As Drucker writes in the same article referred to earlier “ It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.”
We also learn from this how important it is for a leader to collaborate. Leaders must be aware of their strengths but also of their weaknesses and blindspots and find members in their team who can make up for those gaps. Today’s start-up world is full of stories of multi-founder teams. The successful ones find ways to build a ‘complementary set of strengths.’ Others struggle, as they attempt to straddle multiple roles, but not always playing to their strengths. Elon Musk leads brilliantly as the inventor, he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and is most effective and inspiring when he is on the shop floor — fixing a problem or creating a technical innovation. The same Musk struggles in his public communication, reflecting a lack of restraint and maturity that has had the Board scrambling to rein him in.
Getting to know our leadership quotient can empower our leadership. But it isn’t enough. We know results don’t come from just being intelligent. Hard work, diligence, a positive attitude and several other traits and skills must all combine with intelligence for people to deliver superior results. The same is true of leadership. Having a great leadership quotient in a particular dimension is no predictor of success. As leaders, we need to complement our leadership quotient with the beliefs, attitudes and skills that will actually give power and passion to our quotient so that it can deliver outstanding results.