It Takes More Than a High IQ to Be a Successful Leader

Leadership StrategiesLeadership
min Article
Clarke Murphy
July 24, 2023
4 min
Leadership StrategiesLeadership
Executive Summary
In the face of increasing complexity, a high learning quotient (LQ) is even more important than a high IQ for visionary business leaders.


Albert Einstein, widely recognized as one of the greatest minds of all time, offered some good advice for anyone confident in their intelligence: “Never underestimate your ignorance.”

Far too many corporate leaders ignore that counsel.

During my time at Russell Reynolds Associates, I have been fortunate to work with many bold and visionary CEOs at world-leading companies. They have shown, repeatedly, that great leadership goes well beyond the kind of intelligence certified by IQ tests, grade point averages, and other standardized measurements.

Although many undoubtedly have high IQs, they also score well on an often-overlooked, real-world test of intelligence: their learning quotient, or LQ.

No CEO can have all the answers in today’s complex and rapidly evolving business environment. The key to navigating disruption and change is not what a CEO knows but their capacity to learn, adapt, and creatively seize opportunities. That’s where a high LQ comes in.
Having a high LQ is what propels leaders forward—to listen, observe, test, fail, and keep going.

The 2008 financial crisis, digital transformation, the pandemic, sustainability… these challenges have underscored the importance of LQ.

In my book, Sustainable Leadership: Lessons of Vision, Courage, and Grit from the CEOs Who Dared to Build a Better World, I share some inspiring examples of corporate leaders who are harnessing their high LQs to deliver extraordinary sustainability (and business) results.


Learning, Listening, and Adapting to Change

The good news is that LQ is something you can develop. As a business leader, you can find outside mentors, professional consultants, and board members to give you honest feedback about where you can grow personally and professionally.

Through review processes and ongoing check-ins with your direct reports, you can actively seek information about the obstacles they face, uncovering ways to improve efficiency or accelerate the pace of transformation. By regularly engaging with stakeholders, you can keep a pulse on the issues your customers care about, so you can deliver innovative products and solutions.

That goes for me just as much as for the people I work with.

Sustainability came on my radar in 2015, so in many ways, I am starting over in my learning. It does not matter what title I hold. I am the eager kid on his first day of school with his sharpened pencils and notebook laid out neatly on the desk, ready to engage and discover. Every conversation I have is my opportunity to gain invaluable new insights. Remember: there is nobility in admitting what you don’t know.


Accepting Risk, Embracing Experimentation

When writing my book, I met with Regis Repko, Senior Vice President of Generation and Transmission Strategy at Duke Energy, who has a useful way of assessing leaders’ abilities to challenge themselves and take bold action. It involves three zones:

  • The green zone has a high comfort level, with well-established roles and processes, and a playbook for every activity. It does not encourage learning or change.
  • The red zone is where people cling to old ways that no longer work.
  • The yellow zone features many knowns as well as a bit of ambiguity and uncertainty.

“I always tell folks, don’t be afraid to put yourself in the yellow,” he told me. “If you’re operating in the green, you’re not learning, or at least not to the best of your abilities. If you’re in the red, you’re paralyzed and you’re not learning, either. If you’re in the yellow, you have most of it down, but there is a bit of ambiguity and uncertainty, which requires you to be in learning mode. And that is exactly the right place to be.”

And for an example of LQ in action, look no further than Henrik Henriksson, former CEO of the Swedish truck and bus manufacturer Scania. A few years ago, the company launched a fleet of biofuel-powered trucks and buses to reduce carbon emissions by 95%. But, as Henrik told me, they were struggling to attract customers, in part because the vehicles had higher upfront capital investments and operating costs.

Rather than retreat, Henrik recovered from the disappointment and adapted. Instead of trying to sell to small- and medium-sized transportation companies, he shifted attention to large multinationals (his customers’ customers) and offered a 10-year biofuel contract with each sale. The strategy succeeded. And Scania now offers the largest portfolio of engines that run on renewables.

So, it’s clear that a high LQ is essential for an effective response to the complex challenges related to sustainability. The transition to stakeholder capitalism demands bold, forward-looking leadership, with the skills to make sustainability in all its forms a core strategy.

We need more leaders who are creative and courageous enough to heed some additional guidance from Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”