Smart People: Good News/Bad News

Pepper de Callier

Never before in human history have we acknowledged, admired, and rewarded cognitive intelligence (IQ) as we did in the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.
That is about to change—Big Time.
In what seems like another lifetime, when I was a Partner at Heidrick & Struggles, I remember being summoned to a meeting with a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, during the frenzy of the Internet, in which he tilted his down, leaned forward, and spoke in low—almost conspiratorial voice, and peered at me over the top of his glasses to emphasize the gravity of what he was about to say. “Pepper, I want you to find me a very smart person to lead this new company we’re funding—I mean McKinsey smart.” To him, McKinsey & Co, the global consulting firm, was the premier exemplar of super-human intelligence.
Our collective infatuation with cognitive intelligence, however, didn’t begin with the Internet. There are, for example, more that 60 societies, in the United States alone, that honor cognitive intelligence and some, such as Phi Beta Kappa, date back to the 18th century. Then, there are groups like Mensa, the genius society which only admits people who can prove their IQ is higher than 130 and the Mac Arthur Grant, which, like it or not, informally confers the sobriquet “genius” on its recipients along with formally conferring $500,000. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who has ever attended a university that required applicants to take the SAT exam, will remember the almost cult-like enthusiasm with which students used to—maybe still do—compare SAT scores in a not-so-subtle form of intellectual intimidation.
Now, let me clear about where I’m coming from here: cognitive intelligence is very important—full stop. However, it is only a threshold ability. In many cases, it will certainly get you in the door and noticed and maybe even give you a few extra minutes in the spotlight. But, unalloyed by what I call Contextual Intelligence—a blend of emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and common-sense—it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Here’s an example of what I mean.
Recently, I was asked to meet with a senior executive whose employment had just been terminated after almost 15 years. After some evasive answers to my question, “What happened?”, he finally admitted to a discussion in which his boss said something like this to him in what would be their last meeting: “There is no question about your intelligence and that you are correct the vast majority of the time—you have great business instincts and an unparalleled understanding of this industry and of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for us. The problem is—no one cares. No one wants to be with you in a meeting, no one wants to talk with you or to spend any time with you and, sadly now, to even work with you in any context.” This conversation did not take place in the West, by the way. It took place right here in Central Europe, so don’t dismiss its message by citing “cultural” differences—those days are disappearing with increasing speed.
Recent history is crammed full of examples of what I refer to as “toxic intelligence”. Arguably, the best example is Enron. Enron quickly earned the reputation, under its Chairman Kenneth Lay, as a company that would only hire very smart people. Enron’s catastrophic failure is now chronicled in case studies that are used in business schools around the world. Then, we can look at what is, according to many “Best Of” lists, the Mother-of-all Internet melt-downs, managed to raise $375 million in the capital markets, burn through that money and file for bankruptcy all in just 18 months, which is when they finally figured out their business model wouldn’t work. was created, financed and led by some of the “smartest guys in the room” at that time. Looking back from the present day many of these bubbles, melt-downs, and crises of the past look like a slow-motion video of two garbage trucks colliding head-on at 200 kilometers per hour—not a pretty site and a messy crash scene.
Unfortunately, many of the people who hire the smartest guys in the room still haven’t learned any of the lessons from the corporate graveyard of the last four decades, ergo the recent financial meltdown that is still keeping people awake at night. All of which leads me to what I call Pepper’s Law: The more one intellectualizes something, the greater the likelihood they will become separated from reality.
So, here’s the good news: you are smart. The bad news is: if you don’t combine that distinction with healthy doses of emotion intelligence, social intelligence, and common-sense, your chances of a catastrophic career failure have never been greater, because the whole concept of what it means to be smart is being redefined in the 21st century.