Apply Now

The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

What makes an intelligent CEO?


David Sole OBE, will be discussing the four different types of intelligence critical to successful leadership at a School for CEOs breakfast event in Edinburgh on 19th January.

David is a Partner at School for CEOs. He has over 15 years’ experience as an Executive Coach, working with senior leaders and CEOs across a wide variety of sectors.

It sounds like a statement of the blindingly obvious, however CEOs need to be intelligent. Their colleagues expect them to be clever, possibly the smartest person in the room; the Board expects the CEO to demonstrate great judgement otherwise investors wouldn’t be trusting them with their money. Is it only about intellect? What about Emotional Intelligence – surely that is key? And are there other forms of brainpower that leaders should be aware of?

Throughout my 16 years as an Executive Coach with clients across a wide variety of sectors, including several CEOs, I feel there are four different types of intelligence that aspiring leaders should be aware of and which have the capacity to be developed. IQ, EQ, PQ and CQ.

Let’s take IQ first. Acumen and intellect are key to problem-solving, strategy development and other key activities of a CEO. IQ is measurable from an early age and there are a multitude of tests to determine it. CEOs tend to score highly on IQ tests as this fundamental intellect is a key requirement to deal with the mass of complexity that comes with the role.

Secondly, EQ. The model of emotional intelligence relies on aspects of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, social skills and adaptability. Traits such as self-confidence, empathy and optimism contribute to these aspects and are central to having well-developed Emotional Intelligence.

The tone and culture in an organisation emanates from the EQ of the CEO. How they thinks affects how they feel and, consequently, behave in the business. Those behaviours determine the organisational culture. Stories about companies are excellent indicators of what it is like to work there. From the moment you arrive and see signs of designated parking spaces (or not) that is a key indicator of the culture of the business you are visiting – the importance of hierarchy. The tone is set from the top. Often the ego of the CEO defines the culture of the company.

With people leadership such a critical aspect of the role of CEO, for those with under-developed Emotional Intelligence the leadership challenge will be greater. The good news is that EQ can be developed. First, it requires the individual to be self-aware – one of the key facets in the EQ model. Without self-awareness, you are likely to be fighting a losing battle. Similarly, if you try and play act your EQ, it will come across as being inauthentic and nothing will undermine your integrity as a leader faster.

So to the final two less obvious types of intelligence which I feel are key to great leadership – PQ and CQ. Political and Curiosity Quotients.

With organisations relying increasingly on a matrix based structure, the importance of effective influencing increases. Getting things done without a clear mandate requires a different skillset – no longer can leaders rely on authority and orders to mobilise teams. Instead they need to draft stakeholder maps to really understand where power and sway lies, and then they have to set out to influence accordingly – sometimes directly, sometimes through others. What’s more, not everyone will respond to the same approach. Some will prefer logic while others will respond more to emotion – some will seek out data and others will rely on ‘gut feel’. It’s complicated and time consuming. Yet mastering this political intelligence is critical.

CEOs need to think on four dimensions or directions. Upwards into the Chairman and Board, down into the organisation, out to the external stakeholders such as the media, investors, City, regulators and government and finally in – so that they stay sane and don’t get carried away with the hubris that surrounds the role and themselves. They have to stay grounded.

Each of these different stakeholder groups will demand different things of the CEO and more than likely, a different approach – which in itself will vary according to the state of the organisation and the environment in which the business is operating. The CEO will have to adapt their style to reflect this as well as their approach to each of these groups. They will need well developed Political Intelligence and if they don’t have it, they will have to develop it to be successful. This is one of the most consistent themes with senior coaching clients.

Which leaves us with the final intelligence – the Curiosity Quotient. Why curiosity you might ask?

Firstly, is that the most impressive leaders I have come across appreciate they don’t know it all. They have an insatiable hunger to learn in an ever-changing world. They know that they will continue to learn forever. They are curious to learn about their business and about their competitors’ and customers’ businesses; they want to know about what is driving their markets and what or who may be potential disruptors; they are hungry for insights into new technologies and opportunities to create value. They are always eager to learn what drives and motivates the people they work with. It is a never-ending quest for new information and wisdom.

In this regard, the CEOs with high CQ have a ‘growth mindset’ rather than a ‘fixed mindset’. These CEOs know that success isn’t down to talent or intellect – the brainpower that they were given from birth – but instead it is down to hard work, effort and a desire to continually learn. Not only will CEOs with high CQ value learning for themselves, they will also value it in their organisations. They will invest in it and they will reward those who demonstrate it by moving them into more challenging and demanding roles, where they will be stretched more than they might appreciate, however, most importantly, where they will learn the most.

So intelligence is central to success as a CEO, but it is more than simply intellect and brainpower. Emotional Intelligence complements brains, yet to be truly effective you need to develop political nous and be hungry to learn. IQ and EQ are essential, but PQ and CQ are the dimensions of intellect that really make a difference to the most intelligent CEOs.

This is an abbreviated version of an article originally published in Today’s CEO magazine. For the full version, visit CSuite.

For further details on School for CEOs or the EQ vs IQ event, please email


Post your comment


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments