Which came first: The Intellectual or the Leader?

Hat tip to  Pamela Meister of The American Thinker

There’s been a lot of talk within the past, oh three election cycles, about how the “smartest” or most “intellectual” candidate would make the best president. Coincidentally, they are all Democrats:

  • In 2000, Al Gore was considered more “intellectual” than George W. Bush, despite the fact that his college transcript was rife with Cs and C-minuses. He also dropped out of the Vanderbilt Divinity School after receiving a number of Fs.
  • In 2004, John Kerry was touted as being “smarter” than George W. Bush, even though his undergrad GPA was one point lower than Bush’s – a fact that was conveniently unavailable until after the election.
  • Hillary Clinton has been anointed the best and brightest of the class of 2008, followed closely by the “clean and articulate” Barack Obama – although don’t expect to see Mrs. Clinton’s grades anytime soon; they likely have been sequestered like her papers from her days as First Lady.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the above politicians really are intellectually superior to their rivals. We can therefore ask not only why George Bush beat two “intellectuals” in their respective presidential races, but also, do intellectual types really make the best leaders?

If “conventional wisdom” is correct, Al Gore didn’t lose the election, it was stolen from him. Seriously, though, we must consider other factors such as personality and likability. In 2004, Bush beat Kerry in the “likability” category by large margins. Similarly, Al Gore was characterized as a “stiff campaigner,” less likely to inspire that all-important likability factor.

According to Richard Benedetto,

The vote for president, unlike balloting for mayor or governor, is as much a personal choice as it is an issue choice. Americans want to like their president as well as agree with him. They often will overlook differences on issues if they like or trust the person. Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower are recent cases in point. Bill Clinton’s likability helped him survive the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Think about it for a moment. Political ideology aside, who would you prefer to sit down and chew the fat with? George Bush, who spends his vacations wearing jeans and wielding a shovel at his ranch in Crawford, Texas? John Kerry, who enjoys skiing at expensive resorts and slaking his thirst with bottles of vitamin-enriched water? Or Al Gore, who vacations extensively in Europe and flies around in a private jet?

Many average Americans can’t afford to travel to Europe in coach, let alone private jet, nor can they enjoy pricey ski getaways. But they often can, and do, spend vacation time working around the house and yard. Yes, George Bush came from money and the size of his Texas ranch puts the modest homes of many Americans in the shade. But it’s oddly comforting to see a president who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. It gives the impression that he isn’t afraid of hard work, which is important for one who seeks the highest office in both America and the world.  

Now obviously George Bush is not running for office again, but I use him as an example because so much emphasis has been put on the “smart” vs. the “dumb” candidate — “dumb” being equivalent to President Bush. When you realize that an entire industry has sprung up around Bush’s “inferior” intellect, with numerous books, calendars, and other items for sale that impugn his IQ (and focusing largely on his propensity for mispronouncing words like “nuclear”), he’s an obvious choice for discussion. (What will these entrepreneurs do when President Bush leaves office on January 20, 2009?)

If being smart was the only qualification for being a leader, one would assume from his treatment in the media that George Bush should never have gotten near the Oval Office. But there are other qualities that people look for in a leader. Here’s a partial list, culled from various sources:

  • Vision
  • Integrity
  • Consistency
  • Decisiveness
  • Self-belief
  • Ability to delegate
  • Willing to take risks
  • Ability to communicate effectively
  • Capable of choosing competent team members

When making that all-important decision on who to vote for in both the primaries and the general election, think about the factors listed above. Does your candidate have a vision? Is he willing to take risks? Does he stick to his basic convictions, or does he have a habit of licking his finger and putting it up to the wind of public opinion? (Yes, I know there is a woman in the race this year, but I find the constant use of “he/she” when writing to be tedious.)

Eugene Robinson, writing for the Washington Post, believes we need an “egghead” in the Oval Office; specifically, Al Gore:

In [his] book, you see, Gore betrays familiarity with history, economics, even science. He uses big words, often several in the same sentence. And in public appearances he doesn’t even try to disguise his erudition. These supposedly are glaring shortcomings that should keep Gore on the sidelines, rereading Gibbon and exchanging ideas about the structure of the cosmos with Stephen Hawking.
We need a brainiac president, a regular Mister or Miss Smarty-Pants. We need to elect the kid you hated in high school, the teacher’s pet with perfect grades.

Robinson must not have received the memo about Gore’s grades in college. Nor does he take into account many of the leadership qualities I listed above. Book smarts, if I may use the colloquial term, does not necessarily translate into common sense. It’s one thing to theorize on paper and in forums. Putting one’s money where one’s mouth is…well, that’s something else entirely. According to USB Business Development, an organization that offers (among other services) leadership workshops and programs,

[C]lever people, who have no relationship skills, can be intimidating or seem arrogant to others, creating divisions and hierarchies. This causes friction and precludes open dialogue and can eventually dry up creativity. In any leadership role, academic and intellectual abilities must be balanced with high emotional awareness.

Interestingly, Thomas Sowell recently had this to say about Senator John McCain:

Maybe the reason Senator John McCain’s campaign has failed to get any traction is that the debates show him to be the kind of arrogant and condescending know-it-all who would be the most dangerous kind of president.

Think back to the know-it-alls in your experience, both in school and the workplace. Just because they may have more actual knowledge than you in a particular area, does that automatically mean they are the best choice for a leadership role?

Liberals were, remember, in high dudgeon both in 2000 and 2004. They felt, by rights, that the candidate they believed to be the smartest one should have won. Those who place a high premium on intellectualism automatically assume that, as the best and the brightest, they deserve all the accolades society has to offer. But in a capitalist society like ours, this is not always the case. Robert Nozick, writing for the Cato Institute, has a hypothesis that goes back to one’s schooldays (all emphasis mine):

The intellectual wants the whole society to be a school writ large, to be like the environment where he did so well and was so well appreciated. By incorporating standards of reward that are different from the wider society, the schools guarantee that some will experience downward mobility later. Those at the top of the school’s hierarchy will feel entitled to a top position, not only in that micro-society but in the wider one, a society whose system they will resent when it fails to treat them according to their self-prescribed wants and entitlements. The school system thereby produces anti-capitalist feeling among intellectuals. Rather, it produces anti-capitalist feeling among verbal intellectuals. Why do the numbersmiths not develop the same attitudes as these wordsmiths? I conjecture that these quantitatively bright children, although they get good grades on the relevant examinations, do not receive the same face-to-face attention and approval from the teachers as do the verbally bright children. It is the verbal skills that bring these personal rewards from the teacher, and apparently it is these rewards that especially shape the sense of entitlement.

Nozick is writing here about why intellectuals at large oppose capitalism, but his ideas about those who excelled in school expecting to excel in other areas of life (and feeling cheated when they don’t) is very telling.

This brings us to the role of schools in today’s leaders. I asked Dr. Candace de Russy, a nationally recognized writer and lecturer on education and cultural issues, for her thoughts on the subject:

For some decades our academic system has been indoctrinating rather than truly educating students, thus producing intellectuals whose minds are clouded with ideology and whose judgment is impaired. Given the usurpation of higher education and K-12 teacher hiring processes by the left, it is also now in the self-interest of many intellectuals to exercise poor judgment, in scholarly matters as well as in the political realm. Some of the great declinists connected weak and pusillanimous – decadent – leadership with societal affluence. Perhaps many of our intellectuals are too materialistic and self-centered to bother with the rigors of exercising leadership and wise judgment.

Rather than teaching students to think, many educators take it upon themselves to fill their students’ heads with propaganda and groupthink. This explains why conservative campus clubs such as the College Republicans have relatively small memberships, while you can count on large numbers of college students to turn up at anti-war rallies sponsored by International ANSWER and other Communist front groups. Ben Shapiro, author of the bestselling book Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth, discusses the phenomenon of elitist liberal professors that seem to dominate higher education:

This [second] group [of liberals] feels that conservatism is simply dumb.  Professors tend to be intellectually arrogant anyway, and liberalism by its nature is an extremely elitist ideology.  Many professors feel that conservatism is too simplistic to waste time on in the classroom.  I cite numerous examples of this in Brainwashed.  Professors say that if you’re conservative, you’re unqualified to clean highways, much less teach a classroom of students.  Four professors even created a fully funded study designed to conclude that conservatives are less “integratively complex.”  Of course, they had to lump together Stalin, Castro, Hitler, and Reagan in order to do this, but the end justifies the means.

Being spoon-fed a particular ideology (one that espouses a worldview where entitlement plays a major role), coupled with the assumption that higher education automatically confers superiority, and you have people who wonder why a “dummy” like George W. Bush could ascend to the presidency not once, but twice. And rather than take a look at the qualities and convictions that played a major role in his electoral success, they whine and cry about “stolen” and “rigged” elections – because, as Dr. de Russy says, indoctrination – not education – is the name of the game.

Intellectuals will likely always feel as though they are more deserving of leadership roles in our society. But if we take a serious look at our educational system from the bottom up and revamp it to highlight problem solving and critical thinking skills over ideological brainwashing, perhaps that group will shrink to a more manageable size. For not only do we need independent thinkers in our political class, we also need independent thinkers in the electorate. Our future as a democratic republic depends on it.



  1. Leadership has never been about appearing smart or being highly educated. I think one of the fascinating things is to look at all the very successful people who are grade school and high school drop outs. The list includes 7 presidents and 18 billionaires.

    The only real criteria for leadership is..do other people really want to follow you? People follow you because they believe in you, like you, and respect you.

    Welcome Steve, Well said, For too long it has been assumed that someone say, in a ‘management position’ is a leader. We know that this is not always so.
    Yes, it is fascinating to look at successful people who may not have ‘the credentials’ that one might expect. I am continually fascinated and find it very inspiring to read about those ‘who have made it against all odds.’
    Yes,There is no leader without followers. Thanks

  2. There are many forms of intelligence, some contributing to better leadership, others not. Academic intelligence may help a person solve problems, but not necessarily motivate others. Emotional intelligence may help a person empathize with others, but not necessarily take action. Moral intelligence helps a person discern right from wrong, but not necessarily influence others to choose what’s right. The best kind of intelligence for leadership is perceptive intelligence, the ability to know who can do what best, then know how to put them positions where they can successfully help you carry out your mission.

    Pistol Pete, Love how you have broken it down to the practical. I bet you know instinctively where those in your organization need to be placed.

    It seems I read somewhere that those who are very successful seem to have higher E.Q. than I.Q. While I need to look that up
    your statement ‘The best kind of intelligence for leadership is perceptive intelligence, the ability to know who can do what best, then know how to put them in positions where they can successfully help you carry out your mission” would definitely be a winning formula for all.

  3. I have always questioned what people consider to be intellectual or intelligent and what qualities they consider to be good “leadership” material.

    I have found that school means almost nothing. School is good for theory and great for jobs that require specific knowledge like doctors or engineers. Most other degrees are just fluff. They don’t mean half as much as the paper they are printed on – yet so much emphasis is placed on them that it makes me sick.

    On the other hand, people who claim to be intelligent, intellectual or transcending others are usually dumber than boxes of hammers. Hillary, Gore, Kerry et al. are all severely lacking in these departments, yet they seem to think that they stand above most everybody else. All three of them were/are chameleons. They don’t think for themselves. They form opinions and ideas to best fit the situation or people they are working with. I don’t think that any of them could formulate an original or worthwhile opinion if they had to. None of them think outside the proverbial box. However, they appear likable and intelligent because they take the opinions and desires of those around them and spice them up with big words and hollow rhetoric (I knew those degrees were useful for something). When they do this, people go “oh, look! They think like I do. They have the same opinions that I do!” and that makes them feel intelligent too. It’s all very contrived and generally a false sense of smart.

    My opinions, however, are probably a bit skewed because I took away a different sense of leadership from my time in the military. Interestingly, the bets leaders I knew were not the people who were educated; they were the people who best understood the people under them and knew how to lead as one of them. It’s a delicate balance of education, experience, observation and good old common sense. It’s all a very intricate game, because if you elevate yourself too far above the people, you will never gain their respect; but likewise if you are too close to them you will never be seen as a leader.

    That is why our founding fathers wanted a government that was “of the people, for the people” because it was the best way to get people in there who could achieve that balance. What we have today – the political elite caste – just isn’t working. I have spoken at length in previous blog posts about my disappointment over the fact that my representative has been in government for over 40 years and is so far out of touch with the people here in his district that he hasn’t the slightest clue how we live and work any longer. And worse yet, has has artificially propelled himself into a sense of thinking that he is better than everybody else because he has been in office for so long. He is a piss-poor leader. All too many of the people in office today are like that. People who devote their lives solely to government offices are not leaders. Families of government are even worse. Look at the Bush family. They are not terribly good leaders. They think that they are above the common man. The Clintons are the same way. People like Gore or Obama are different, but they still let government and power go to their heads and reach that point of being “holier than thou.”

    Ok, sorry, I’m ranting here, so I’ll stop. All I will say is that if we want leaders, we need to pick people who are not driven by their egos, their money or their desire to be lifelong politicians or belong to the political elite. We need to return things to “pf the people, for the people.”

    Arclightzero, You can just rant anytime here.
    I seem to remember something from ( believe it was Rockefeller) the gist of it was (I’ll pay
    more for the man who can deal with people than a man who knows facts, I can push a button and get information.) When more time, will look that up too. but that was his general idea.

    I have heard for a long time that you did not want to put anyone with an MBA from Harvard in a position with too much power for at least 2 years.. thought that was interesting. My, I can see I have my homework cut out for me in the new year looking up all this stuff from my poor ole brain’s memory pool. LOL!

    The Military has been one of our great examples of leadership. I hope it continues to be so, as in everything else, there are always some ‘rotten apples’.

    Your rep needs to have his office packed with protesters, throw in a march or two.. bet that would get his attention.. oh, for the 60’s zeal with a moral conservative bent..lol!

  4. Wow, what an amazing post and I couldn’t agree more. It is this sense of entitlement that the people whom she cited, creep me out with. Bottom line is, I think, people in general want someone who is ‘real’ to lead them. They want to feel that that person would or does understand them and their problems. I know that’s quite a distillation but I think it’s true and I think that is why GW was elected not once but twice. He’s like the Jimmy Stewart of politicians – the everyman kind of guy.

    I love to watch old Jimmy Stewart movies when I have the chance.
    Bush is continually made fun of, of course Clinton was too, it was for entirely different reasons. Bush for grammar, duh? and Clinton for ‘hanky panky’, for lack of a better word.
    Yep, think the world needs real today. We don’t need someone who tells us to sacrifice and they obviously do not. I could get on a real soapbox about this…LOL!

  5. Don’t mistake Democrats affection for the “egghead” for just an affection for eggheads, put forward a conservative and they’ll hate them just as much.

    I personally don’t take kindly to condescending gasbags prattling on like leftists do. The funny thing is you can pick them out from a mile away, you don’t need a name or know whose voice it is, just listen for key words like social, outcomes, equality, peace, dialogue and bang the Leftist BS detector starts ding-dinging away.

    Oh i’d rather spend the day with a skunk than that condescending gasbag Gore.

    Oh, Mk, you have made my morning.. You have made me laugh so hard I spilled or spewed my coffee.
    I shall be listening from this day hence.
    Love your take as always..

  6. Here’s one of those odd but true things about leadership. Harvard did a study to find the qualities of successful business leaders. I think they were looking at presidents and CEO. The only conclusion they could draw is that they were all manic/depressives. (Shows you how old the study was because that term has been changed to bipolar).

    I can’t tell you how many people in leadership that I’ve seen behave like manic/depressives. They have this flurry of activity followed by hiding in their offices.

    So what happens is that in the hiring process, HR uses these people as a standard and goes out and hire more of them.

    I hope you’re done with your coffee. Now for a flurry of activity.

    Whoo Hoo, Bipolar hmm…So that’s what’s wrong with corporate and Government! We knew all the time something was up with their thinking! LOL!
    I have flurried all day..are you gifted with E.S.P.?

  7. One last odd idea. I’ve been through a number of leadership courses. One I found more like religion than management was Covey’s Principled Centered Leadership.

    From that it’s clear that leaders have a strong set of principles or value that drives there version. What they keep preaching was that it was only the good principles and values. However, everything else they taught would fit leaders that weren’t such nice people…e.g. Ghengis Kahn. Jim Jones was very effective leader. It jus wasn’t a very good place he lead people.

    So strong principles, values and vision are key to effective leadership, you just have to make sure you lead people to the promise land and not off a cliff.

    I remember Covey bought out or merged with Franklin and it became Franklin Covey, I believe.
    My Franklin ‘Brain Book’:) as I recall was my first expensive system of attempting to be organized. And I do mean ‘attempted’ lol! I went through that course of principals,values and belief windows that we supposedly have. As I recall, you could know a persons course of behavior and probable end result if you knew what was on their belief window and values.. Whoo! I should have paid a lot more attention! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing..or so I have read. Probably true in my case, ya know how they say, a little of this, a little of that, and master of none. Ya know I am a sucker however, for Seminars on leadership and human behavior. When there is one available, I am usually one of first to sign up..Most would say I should have saved my ca$h! lol!

    I agree “strong principles, values and vision are key to effective leadership, you just have to make sure you lead people to the promise land and not off a cliff.” as you have stated. We certainly need leaders now to stand up and be counted today.

  8. Thanks, Angie 🙂 I’m glad you don’t mind my ranting. Sometimes I just need to get things out, ya know?

    Anyway, about the Harvard MBA comment, it’s right on (assuming the person went straight to school after high school). People who know nothing but school and have no real practical experience are worthless. Theory means exactly nothing in the so-called “real world” and people with supposedly “prestigious” degrees often times are so disillusioned by their piece of paper that they don’t realize that experience counts for more than education when it comes to the functioning of the real world (especially in day to day matters).

    That is true, On the plus side,that piece of paper gets you more money for the job you do. In reference to the MBA, I personally know someone that worked at a well known company where they had 2 new hires with MBA’S, and they almost ruined them in a short time with their management style and lack of know how (how it was really done successfully) Needless to say, when said company saw what was going on. They were gone. You need experience before too much power. Nothing will take the place of actually doing the job, sitting at a desk making decisions w/o the above equals trouble in the long run. Just my opinion.

    I believe in continuing education. My problem with it is just this: There is a difference between education and being prepared for the world we live in. Skills are needed, manyaregoingtocollege to get a job. Sadly they almost have to now. Meanwhile the needed skills and education for educations sake are missing. Also, most don’t know what they are going to love or hate until they do it. Teaching for instance, I have had too many friends say they did’nt know what to do and thought ‘well, I can always teach’.Wrong in my opinion. Teaching is a noble profession that some are gifted with and others are just there because it’s a job. Who suffers here? Academics are not for everyone. At the same time, education is,whether it is an apprentice ship or liberal arts to make a living wage and/or make a better life and/or a better world. Again, money is the aim for most choices we make in life as far as what we do with our life. Not always the best choice, again in my opinion,but sometimes necessary.

  9. Very true. And believe me, I fully support and encourage education. However, I think that people really need to find themselves before they pursue an education. I have gone to “traditional” school and night/weekend school and I can tell you that the experience in the adult school was totally different than going to school with kids. There was so much more ambition and motivation – presumably because the people who were there were there because they wanted to be and had a specific goal in mind. Plus, the people who get experience first and then go to school to augment their experience with education are far more useful in the real world then people who spend 16 or more years in school before actually hitting the streets and getting a job.

    I understand what you mean, and I agree, it is so hard to know what you want to do when you are 17-18 or even 21 in a lot of cases. There usually is more ambition and motivation with adults, ‘been there done that and bought the t-shirt sort of thing’ they don’t usually have as much ‘fun and games’ on their mind when pursuing education or career skills. Experience first with Education is a real winner.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s