Leadership = Wisdom + Intelligence + Creativity (synthesized)

February 11, 2007 7:04 am Published by

Robert Sternberg is one of my favorite authors. He has written a wonderful book entitled, Successful Intelligence. In the January 2007 American Psychologist he summarizes his “systems model of leadership.”

Although he agrees that “the environment strongly influences” the display of leadership, Sternberg clearly believes there are characteristics that set leaders apart from others.

CREATIVITY. Leaders are able to generate ideas and products that are (a) relatively novel; (b) high in quality; and (c) appropriate for the task at hand.

Sternberg then describes different ways creativity is used by leaders:

1. Problem redefinition. 2. Problem analysis. 3. Selling their solution. 4. Recognizing how knowledge can both help and hinder creative thinking. 5. Willingness to take sensible risks. 6. Willingness to surmount obstacles. 7. Belief in one’s ability to accomplish the task at hand. 8. Willingness to tolerate ambiguity. 9. Willingness to find extrinsic rewards for the things one is intrisically motivated to do. 10. Continuing to grow intellectually rather than to stagnate.


Sternberg defines successful intelligence as: “the skills and dispositions needed to succeed in life, given one’s own conception of success, within one’s sociocultural environment.”

He differentiates successful intelligence from academic intelligence (the ability to learn and perform well in school.) Leaders do need academic intelligence to help them process information and ideas, remember information necessary to make decisions, and to be able to think critically about situations and options. But research has shown that if leaders are too much brighter (in a traditional sense) than the people they lead, the leader may not “connect” with the people and is less effective.

Practical intelligence (another term for successful intelligence) is used to solve everyday problems by applying knowledge gained from experience. It includes the ability to adapt to one’s environment, to shape your environment to fit your needs, or finding a new environment in which to work.

One aspect of practical intelligence is emotional intelligence — which has been shown to be a positive predictor of leadership. (Emotional intelligence includes the ability to get along well with others, to manage your own emotions, and to demonstrate self-discipline.) As I have stated to many young people, academic success doesn’t matter if you can’t get along with others or manage yourself.


To me, this is an interesting concept, because I have not heard much discussion about “wisdom” in our culture. Sternberg defines wisdom as “the use of successful intelligence, creativity, and knowledge as mediated by values to (a) seek to reach a common good, (b) by balancing intrapersonal (one’s own), interpersonal (others’) and extrapersonal (organizational, institutional …) interests, (c) over the short and long term to (d) adapt to, shape, and select environments.”

The key part that Sternberg emphasizes is that wisdom is focused on the common good. He states “wise leaders skillfully balance the interests of all stakeholders, including their own interests, those of their followers, and those of the organization for which they are responsible.” He goes on to say that intelligence, knowledge and creativity do not guarantee wisdom.

Sternberg concludes:

“Truly good leadership is relatively rare because it requires a synthesis of all of the elements described above. . . It is possible that in the past, creativity was an optional feature of leadership. In today’s world, with its staggering rate of change, it is no longer optional. . . A leader lacking in creativity will be unable to deal with novel and difficult situations. . . A leader lacking in academic intelligence will not be able to decide whether his or her ideas are viable, and a leader lacking in practical intelligence will be unable to implement his or her ideas effectively. An unwise leader may succeed in implementing ideas but end up implementing ideas that are contrary to the best interests of the people he or she leads.”

Wow. I like this guy’s ideas.


Published by
February 11, 2007 7:04 am


  • Sound piece. A few things though, for your consideration.

    First, I think you sell emotional intelligence short by only linking it to how one gets along with others.

    Its way more as you know. Including merging logic and intuition, balancing internal and external competing factions and factors, integrating the art of negotiation and collaboration to win, risk management and risk taking plus the tight wire act of balancing leading and serving,

    The words of Lao-Tzu, illustrate the signature presence of EI “when the best leader’s work is done the people say, “we did it ourselves.”

    Next Sternberg’s definition of wisdom is top heavy, clunky, pedantic and unnecessarily complex to be taken seriously. And so few will.

    I’ll suggest three quotes to contrasting but not to exhaust. Each in succession builds on the former. All business centric and spot-on-relevant.

    First “The key to wisdom is knowing all the right questions.” John A. Simone. Second, by David Starr Jordan, “Wisdom is knowing what to do next, skill is knowing how to do it, and virtue is doing it.” And third, by the immortal Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

    Pick any leader in any context. Business. Art. Science. Entertainment. Cultural. Musical. Publishing. Philosophical. Political. Spiritual. They all embody the above quotes mix in the magic they bring to their work, whether its result is automotive production, product development, marketing or medical advancement.

    We do agree on this though, Leadership = Wisdom + Intelligence + Creativity.

    • Anonymous says:

      Jay, thanks for your thoughtful additions. The quotes you share on wisdom are extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thanks!

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