Higher Intelligence - is it a blessing or a curse?

Written by Dominic Johnson 04 Mar 2019

One of the reasons I am passionate about developing technical specialists into fully rounded leaders of knowledge practices is that it is a journey that I am also progressively undertaking. As a leadership development expert, I am a technical subject matter expert, much like those I work with in facilitating the “leading knowledge” Mastering Expertship Program. Knowledge leaders tend to be intellectually gifted – but is this a help or a hindrance?

It doesn’t merely reflect the acquisition of a new skillset but, rather, a different way of relating to the world and others. Technical specialists are almost always blessed with higher than average intelligence. Is it truly a blessing – or might it also be a curse? Do intellectually gifted people over rely on their powers of analysis and under-develop some equally vital characteristics that are not grounded in the intellect?

As a facilitator, I often give considerable thought to the closing remarks at the conclusion of my workshops. More often than not, I will select a famous quotation – one that I hope inspires participants to take action. A common favourite – that seems to resonate with many people – is the following quotation from William H. Murray, an author of more than 20 programming books).

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

There is something about courage or boldness that is perhaps non-instinctual for technical specialists. One of the key functions of the intellect is to detect risk and then to strategise how to achieve one’s goal while minimising or avoiding that risk. There are all kinds of risks that one takes on when one ventures further than merely analysing a given problem – whereas the analysis itself is often risk free.

I have yet to meet a technical expert who cannot – with great precision and expediency – provide an insightful analysis of the various problems affecting their organisation. Such analysis is safe. It does not expose the observer to any risk – although speaking such observations in the presence of certain people may do so. The analysis, in and of itself, typically provides some level of psychological comfort to the observer. “The situation is a mess. And, in recognising the particular problems that cause that mess, I feel to some extent ‘buffered’ from the impact of the mess. I have somehow distanced myself from it.”

The observations alone do nothing to change the situation. That requires action. But actions inherently carry various risks. “Am I prepared to voice my concerns at the risk of troubling others? …provoking discomfort? …having my analysis rejected? What if my proposed solutions do not yield the expected results, etc.?”

Courage leads to commitment – taking action, which carries the risk of failure. Our intellects – focused on keeping us safe – may intuitively prefer to remain within the safe precincts of detached observation where risks seem minimal. The price we pay, however, is perhaps never breaking out of the constraints of our given situation.

  • “If I don’t commit to fleshing out a specific action plan for change, then I never have to face the prospects that it is difficult to change one’s habits.”

  • “If I don’t commit to initiating a different kind of conversation with my stakeholders then I don’t run the risk of having their reject my proposed new way of relating.”

  • “If I remain within the safe precincts of analysing what’s wrong with a particular system or process (and never commit to developing and implementing a solution where there is a risk that my ideas may be proven wrong) then I can satisfy myself that I am the undeserving recipient of others’ flawed design rather than equally responsible.”

While such reasoning may keep an individual – or at least their fragile ego – “safe” from the threat of failure, it also keeps them passively disposed – not taking decisive action to bring about the desired change.

Courage is – as its etymology implies – a characteristic of the “heart” rather than the head. It is choosing to care enough about the issues to not be satisfied with intellectual distancing, detached observations, playing safe, and avoiding the risks of failure. It’s the willingness to take responsibility, ownership, action, without any guarantees of success – even putting aside one’s entirely rational fears about the potential risks inherent in seeking to transform a situation because one cares more about the outcome than on protecting one’s own supposed reputation for flawless reasoning.

As William H Murray opines, there’s something very compelling in adopting such a bold or courageous disposition. Sensing one’s willingness to exercise risk based on caring enough about a worthy outcome, others become willing to lend a hand, to also accept risk, to make a contribution. This entails a proverbial “leap of faith” since there are no guarantees that others will join one in one’s efforts, accept one’s proposals or analysis, that one’s solutions will be effective.

As such, it might be said that such courage is an expression of the irrational. When every instinct that has enabled technical experts to mature their careers to date is screaming out “just avoid putting oneself in harm’s way”, a willingness to accept risk and uncertainty despite feelings of caution is highly counter-intuitive. Yet, all progress depends upon such bravery.

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