Leadership and Mensa: an introduction

[The Bulgarian shortened version of this article is available here]

“Leadership- the action of leading a group of people or an organization”
“Authority- the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience”

from the “New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition” (on a Mac)

When I was asked to write about this subject, I suddenly had memories of past discussions with some colleagues that I met around Europe.

And, usually, we first worked together, then we “tested the waters” and talked about this club called Mensa- only to discover that we both were members.

I am not implying that we were leaders- simply that, after knowing each other better, we assumed that we could be, as a British colleague told me once “Mensa material”.

But being in Mensa does not imply being a leader : it only implies that we passed a test that gives us the “authority” to claim to be in within the 2% highest IQ.

And this is the key to my position on leadership : too often in my business activities I was confronted by people who confused leadership with authority.

Therefore, I made a radical choice : instead of talking about leadership and Mensans, I will talk about how to recognize if, beyond your high IQ, you are also ready to become a leader.

If you want to comment, insult me, etc- contact me through the Magazine [Note: this article was contributed pro-bono to the Magazine of the Mensa Bulgaria]

1. Leadership and authority

To give you a term of comparison : if you show your Mensa membership card, you are giving a sign of the authority represented by Mensa- but, unless you are showing it to a member, or to a non-member who has a positive perception of Mensa, the positive value of membership will not recognized.

Therefore, while you may be thinking of asserting to your right of leadership, you are not even recognized the authority.

In my view, leadership is the positive value of authority- it is the authority recognized by your audience.

If you need to exercise the powers associated with your authority, it implies that your powers are not recognized- that you have to remind.

Again with our example : if you are recognized as smarter than most of your peers, your intellectual leadership is recognized ; if you find yourself playing “high IQ” tricks to have people around you acknowledge your high IQ, probably your are not considered that smart.

And this brings to a final point : also if you are given authority as a formal definition, that does not necessarily need to be accepted by others, unless they accept the authority and leadership of whoever gave you the authority.

In my limited but relatively long experience, you can have leadership without authority, at least on a temporary basis, but authority without leadership requires a constant reminding to your audience that you have the authority.

2. The author

As my online and business friends know, I write- a lot. For the sake of brevity, I think that it is enough to say that I have been a member of the Italian Mensa from 1989 and, as many Mensa members (including the “Fons et Origo”, Dr. L. Ware), my membership has always been one of those “should I stay or should I go” relationships.

What is my expertise on authority and leadership ? Well, I was lucky. I grew up (actually, I was groomed) in non- conventional environment, as the first son of a theater/radio actor.

Since my childhood i was also actively involved in political campaign, and as a teenager I was more interested in studying the directing aspects of performing arts than the acting/visibility side- ending up with studying cultural anthropology and linguistics at 14, before moving onto computers.

Then, I was myself active in politics in a European Federalist organization that involved all the major parties- having plenty of material to study,before working in different political campaigns. All of this before I was 18.

But my luck did not end there- in the Army, I volunteered and designed a training course in technology, for soldiers and, separately, for officers and professional soldiers, again being able to study and profile up to the Colonel level.

Finally, in business, I ended up working on decision support and management training as part of my consulting activities, and became a project manager and management consultant in 1990.

Again, over the last 20 years I was lucky enough to do that across Europe, but also with Americans in Europe.

But how do the audience see Mensa and its members?

3. Perception of and by Mensans

The most positive feed-back was from an American classmate in London- he called it “the genius club” (at the time, the entrance required a 99% percentile).

But most of the feed-back I collected in Europe and US, and also from Asian friends who knew about Mensa, wasn’t that positive.

And I am not referring to my contacts- it is their public at large that did not see the positive value.

And why so? My personal opionion is that we are part of the reason.

When I say “we”, I mean of course our behaviour as members.

Most societies give a premium to conformity- being as the others, or generating leaders through a repeatable path: study in the right schools, work in the right places, and so on.

Also when competition is acceptable, it is competition on something that is theoretically obtainable by everybody- not something innate.

Many of our members behave as if they deserve to be treated better- or to obtain a better position, just because of their IQ.

But the IQ measured by Mensa tests is just a part of what is intelligence- and, as any test, anyway it identifies some traits vs a measurement framework.

Leadership is an expression of social intelligence : your capability of “finding the key” to the mind of people around you.

Some of our members unfortunately focus on showing off more than using whatever their IQ means, generating a negative feed-back, that is part envy and part fear.

Envy- because you assert that you have something that cannot be obtained, but it is received.

Fear- because you identify yourself as deserving special rights.

The flip side of the IQ coin is a common complaint that I heard from many Mensans : frustration at being forced to operate in “slow gear”, and at not having their value recognized.

4. The value of IQ in leadership

Let’s say that being a leader means, etimologically, to lead- to show the way.

Most Mensas, in part for the reasons exposed above, neglect their social skills.

The more they get a negative feed-back, the more they close up and focus on showing off their superiority by doing something that is quite often useless, like doing only games in which they already know that they excel.

A waste of resources.

Of course, as I said before, there are many different kind of intelligence, and Mensans, despite what most people (inside and outside Mensa), as just humans.

Subject to pride, envy, fear, etc- all the range of human emotions and fallacies.

I remember years ago a long discussion on MIJ on what was the common thread in Mensa- beside passing the admission test.

Somebody, half-jokingly, suggested that maybe it is just like a club for everyone having a red beard, or any other “niche” club.

In my experience, beside having passed the test, the common thread is the ability to understand from fewer details- to anticipate.

Useful to map strategies, innovate, make decisions with limited information before others.

Some Mensans use this skill playing chess, some others working on writing complex word games, others building up complex memory skills.

But if you want to focus on leadership, you have to develop some skills that most Mensans, so self-absorbed on their own superior IQ (I am joking, of course !), neglect.

If you want to lead, it is not enough to be able to see what should be the next step before others- you need first to be able to understand how to have others trust your “intuition”.

Understanding how the people you want to lead perceive what you do and say, and also why they could refrain from trusting you requires a simple task : listening, and learning how to motivate people.

But this is just the first step: when you understand them, you need to communicate- interact with people, and have them take a first leap of faith following you.

Some junior leaders have a weakness that, unfortunately, is common with most Mensans I met – a short fuse.

You can be the smartest leader, have the best idea- but reality will have a strange habit to interfere with your carefully planned path to success for your team.

Failure is not an option- is part or reality ; it is the way you cope with failures that differentiates a leader : if you get frustrated with a failure, and dump the guilt on your team members as soon as you can, you are not exercising leadership- you are exercising authority.

As a leader, you need to steer your team through treacherous seas, and motivate them to overcome short-term failures, toward the target you identified and communicated.

If you want- you are not asking if the glass if half-full or half-empty : you are asking “is this the right question ? what should we really do ?”, and then share your answer with your team.

Why Mensans are more prone to fail on this issue ? Because it seems so simple and evident what you should do, that you cannot simply accept that somebody else does not see that so clearly- and fails.

There are various degrees of leadership- some leaders build a loyal team and work only with that team.

Some people lead whoever is assigned to them- maybe using a carrot-and-stick to manage (or dump) failing members- or rotten apples dumped on their team (it happens).

Anyway- the larger the team, the more you need to build circles of trust : people who can reinforce in others your value as a leader.

If you believe that you can be a leader, you have to be able to build relationships with other people.

Why ? Because you need to have time to lead- the larger the group, the more you have to have somebody trustworthy to delegate to.

If you find yourself constantly meddling with the details- probably you are a control freak, more than a potential leader…

And I know that sometimes is or seems easier to do things yourself than to explain and look somebody slowly grasping the meaning : but unless you learn how to share your work with others (or transfer it to them), you will be always focusing on the trees, and never seeing the forest.

I mean- if I walk through a forest, I try to position myself in a mental map; if I just bump from one tree to another, maybe I will get outside the forest- but I will need to be really lucky to do that in a reasonable amount of time.

Being faster then the others in seeing the big picture gives you a competitive advantage in becoming a leader.

But, as a leader, you should also be ready, in most cases, to give away something that, as a Mensan, often you prize : privacy.

You will always find people who would like to be a leader that will “test” you with the same meaningless games I described above : in some cases, they will spend days to learn some trick that makes them look smarter, so that they can show to everybody that they can achieve something that you are unable to.

And every single action you do will be part of your leadership profile- and often told in a distorted way, to increase your leadership value or to diminish it.

Last but not least: if you lead, you will make mistakes once in a while.

Most high IQ people have such a high self-esteem (or large-but-weak), that they cannot accept that they can make mistakes.

Acceptable- but not from a leader. If you make mistakes, the easier way to keep leading is to cope with reality, and use this as a shared lesson to move on- reinforcing your leadership.

5. Suggestions

I met in the past some Mensa members who behaved as “IQ suprematist” : people with no sense of history, but a huge ego.

Yes, an oversized ego probably comes with the IQ package- but it is the way you use it that makes the difference.

I have a different perspective, and personally I think that the value of a high IQ is higher not when you try to be a leader, but when you work as a catalyst for the people around you.

As you are probably faster in grasping where the discussion or events are leading to, you can gently facilitate change- and intervene in discussions before they become fights…

If you choose to become a leader (probably to obtain some authority at a later stage), as you have both IQ and social skills, get ready : you will sometime have to resist the urge to truncate discussions by giving your solution.

Why ? If you are so smart that you never let the other think and reach your conclusions, you will become the shared brain- and you will have no time to develop the relationships needed to be the leader you want to be.

As I said before, being a leader means also being exposed : I found pathetic when I see famous people basking in the light of media attention, benefit from it, and then complain for… the media attention that they receive.

And do not react to every media attention on their terms : you have to use their unrequested attention, turn it around, and create a new discussion on your own terms.

Otherwise- you will waste time, and your leadership will be weakened, as eventually, out of frustration, probably you will revert to the “rapid, high IQ reaction” mode- alienating the sympathy of your own people.

If you do not want media attention, but feel the urge to be a leader- start a small club of devout followers, and never go public : you will be the lord of the flies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_of_the_Flies) in your own turf, and maybe you could still influence your people into becoming a smarter politician- you will be the kingmaker.

But if you decide to become a politician- I wish you to be the best facilitator around, and surround you with people smarter than you are.

And, once in a while, to make a mistake that will force you to remember that you are only human- despite the high IQ.

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