The Intelligent and the Stupid

“There are only two races on this planet-the intelligent and the stupid.”
John Fowles

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”
Bertrand Russell

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”
Charles Darwin

The world is filled with organizations running beneath their potential – or failing for years and years. And perhaps no where is this more true than in schooling. Schools can fail, and fail, and fail without respite; well-meaning people leading well-meaning people can produce bad results for a generation or more, cluelessly replicating failure, engineering irrelevant reform projects, all the while wondering why results aren’t any better.

There are lots of reasons why this might be the case, but I submit one not often discussed is this: many leaders are not smart enough. And while I am a proponent of leadership that considers the softer side of managing humans, as I’ve written before, I also firmly believe that there must be a place for the intelligent at the heads of organizations.

That seems obviously true – bright people should lead. But it seems to me that a lot of organizations are led not by the bright and able, but by the gregarious. We tend to value extroversion in our leaders, a bonhomie, that in many organizations tends to produce a leadership-by-confidence rather than a leadership-of-quality.

If So, Why So?

In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University devised an experiment to shed light on why it is that intelligent people seem to doubt themselves, and vice versa. In their study, they assessed the general level of intelligence of their study group, and their level of confidence.

The results are fascinating: intelligence and confidence did indeed seem inversely related; the intelligent subjects regarded their abilities as average, while the unintelligent believed they were extraordinary; and moreover, the unintelligent were unable to see their own inadequacy while also failing to recognize ability in others.

In other words, they are not bright enough to realize they aren’t very capable – and assume those who are actually capable, by virtue of behaving differently than they, are actually the unintelligent ones. I think this phenomenon, now dubbed the Kruger-Dunning Effect, is a powerful explanatory mechanism for understanding organizations (and life in general).

David Dunning was interviewed by Errol Morris of the New York Times:

DAVID DUNNING: Well, my specialty is decision-making. How well do people make the decisions they have to make in life? And I became very interested in judgments about the self, simply because, well, people tend to say things, whether it be in everyday life or in the lab, that just couldn’t possibly be true. And I became fascinated with that. Not just that people said these positive things about themselves, but they really, really believed them. Which led to my observation: if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.


DAVID DUNNING: If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute. The decision I just made does not make much sense. I had better go and get some independent advice.” But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is. In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer. And so we went on to see if this could possibly be true in many other areas. And to our astonishment, it was very, very true.

Hiring – A Legacy of Bad Decisions

While there are many ways a less-than-intelligent leader can endanger its firm, I think at the core of the issue is hiring – leaders tend to hire people who are like themselves. When the leader is less-than-intelligent, less-than-intelligent people get hired and promoted, often creating an inner circle of confident but low-functioning management; this cabal tends to regard good ideas as bad, and bad as good, and they can reinforce each other’s inaccurate view of the world. (A cheap shot: the administration of George W. Bush?)

I’ve written before, the teacher hiring process could be described charitably as silly, but this isn’t a trivial matter – there could hardly be a more important factor in the quality of schooling than the quality of the teacher. According to Ken Leithwood, a professor of educational administration at OISE in Toronto, the second most powerful factor is the leadership of a school.

And I would argue that intelligence is relatively low down the list of criteria for hiring teachers and principals: ideas like “commitment to students” (read: the appearance of caring a lot) tends to win out.  And of course, the right attitude is important (we wouldn’t admire a doctor who seemed completely indifferent to her patients).  But my argument is this: if schooling is something beyond folk art, if it is a profession with technical skills, requiring complicated responses to confusing dilemmas, intelligence cannot be downplayed in any hiring process.

If leaders are blinded by their own lack of intelligence, how can they function well? How do they hire the best teachers? Would they recognize a good teacher if they saw one? If principals’ leaders, too, aren’t that bright, would they even know who the best principals are? Would they define “best” in accordance with reality? How would these less-than-bright leaders even know if their schools or systems were succeeding – would they choose the right criteria?  If they can’t really recognize quality, or its opposite, how will the system improve?  Will they merely embrace one irrelevant reform project after another, or pursue only those that produce results?

Does the Kruger-Dunning Effect, even if it is an academic restatement of an intuitive notion, help explain why organizations can consistently fail – despite the best efforts of well-meaning people?

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