The intelligent man finds almost everything ridiculous, the sensible man hardly anything.


A few weeks back I wrote this post laying out my wishlist for the ‘perfect’ school leader. Since then, one startling omission has become clear. I addition to wanting school leaders to be humble, loving, determined, focussed and possessing of vision I also want them to be clever. Too many people are, for a variety of reasons (but probably the biggest is confidence,) promoted above their ability. This results in the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the finding that the poorest performers are the least aware of their own incompetence. Or put more crudely: stupid people are too stupid to recognise their own stupidity… After comparing participants’ tests results with their self-assessment of their performance in such diverse fields as sense of humour, grammar and logic, Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, the incompetent not only fail to recognise their own lack of skill but also fail to recognise genuine skill in others… As Dunning observes, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know 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.”

What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? (p. 62-3)

You’ve probably come across school leaders that fit these descriptions. If you haven’t, stick around.

Obviously, just being clever wouldn’t work, but it stikes me that it might be possible for someone to possess all the other qualities I think are important and still not be very bright. A desire for intelligence might seem somewhat controversial but it is, I think, essential if we want schools to be well led.

Of course, I probably have to justify what I mean by intelligence. At its most basic intelligence is defined as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Professor of educational psychology, Linda Gottfredson defines it thusly:

Intelligence is a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience. It is not merely book-learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings, ‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do.

In his marvellous little book, Intelligence, Stuart Richie says of Gottfredson’s definition:

… it would be surprising if something as complicated as human intelligence could be summed up in a brief soundbite. The definition above describes a mental capacity which everyone has to a degree, but what’s crucial… is that not everyone has the same capacity: some people are more intelligent than others.

These are I think essential qualities in anyone responsible for running a school. So, how do we know if a prospective school leader is up to snuff? Novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald had an interesting idea: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Sadly, I’m not sure how we might measure this. So should we just give everyone an IQ test? Well, maybe – there’s compelling evidence that a quotient of general intelligence, or g, correlates well with a whole host of desirable qualities including educational achievement, performance in complex jobs, creativity and, wait for it… leadership. (It also correlates with committing fewer crimes, making funnier jokes and ‘liking’ The Godfather on Facebook!)

I recognise that this might feel unpalatable and it’s probably impossible to decide on precisely where to draw the line. So instead, I’d like to suggest that a career in school leadership should require a further degree of at least Masters level in their own academic subject. Admittedly, this wouldn’t provide a precise measure of intelligence, but it could be a reasonable proxy which also revealed something about motivation, the capacity for hard work and – highly desirable in its own right – more expert subject knowledge.