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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Intelligence -- or access?

Q: Elena Kagan's nomination has raised the prospect of an "all-Ivy" Supreme Court. Is it a good idea for any institution, or any sector of society, to rely so heavily on a handful of elite universities to educate and train its leaders?

The question about intelligence in public service leadership is not just about smarts; it is about access.

While it is true that every member of the Supreme Court, if Elena Kagan is confirmed, will be a product of an Ivy League education, none of the members come from privileged backgrounds. Most justices come from middle-class background with the exception Justice Clarence Thomas who grew up without any material advantages. Therefore, each of the justices demonstrate the benefits of meritocracy; each earned the right to be considered for higher education and eventually the high court by virtue of doing well first in school and later in the legal profession. Smarts helped, but it was not the deciding factor; access to opportunity was.

Intelligence does, however, play a role in leadership; it creates opportunity for self and others. We need those in charge to demonstrate an ability to learn. While some of that learning will come from books, most will come from learning on the job as well as learning from others in positions of influence - parents, teachers, bosses and mentors. It also comes from the streets, not simply mean streets of hard knocks but in the streets of how the world really works.

Effective leaders are street savvy. One reason is because they are curious. We need our leaders to ask questions both to gain information as well as to challenge assumptions. A leader must first and foremost know the issues. Not simply on a surface issue but well below them, that is, she must know how origin, context, conflict and complexity affect what is happening in the here and now.

It is essential that a leader understand the factors affecting their organization. Business students are taught the basics of SWOT analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Some of these factors can be discerned from spreadsheets and annual reports, but so much more comes from human intelligence. For that reason SWOT analysis is vital for any enterprise, public or private.

Leaders determine the obstacles to success and their organizational weaknesses by asking questions to all kinds of constituents: employees, vendors and end-users. Good leaders that I know make a regular habit of picking up the phone and talking to people about what is going right as well as what is going wrong. They also do first-hand research to check out what is happening as well as what is not happening.

Eleanor Roosevelt was famous for such inspections. As Franklin's legs, since he was confined to a wheel chair, she was good at looking behind the scenes, be it a WPA project commissary or dormitory, or during the war, a field hospital. She learned to channel his curiosity to ask questions and see things first hand. This is a trait that every smart leader can learn.

Intelligence does open the door to access. That is, if you have some smarts you can find a way to be noticed. You have the opportunity to make your mark either in school or your chosen field. And so access, coupled with smarts, is fundamental to the way things work in our country.

And for much of the 20th century access and intelligence went hand in hand. This is becoming less true in the 21st century. Due to the yawning divide between have and have-nots, and the rising cost of higher education, access to opportunities the come from higher education that existed for many adults (including those on the Supreme Court) is becoming threatened. And so it will fall to intelligent leaders of this generation and generations to come will continue to have the access they need to succeed on the merits of their talents, skills, initiative and effort.

By John Baldoni

 |  May 18, 2010; 10:11 AM ET
Category:  Leadership development Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: A place for smarts, not 'empathy' | Next: The test of a meritocracy

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