What is the Best Predictor of Leader Success?

[May 29, 2020]  If we look at professional literature on leadership, there is a solid consensus that two factors allow us to foretell leader success.  Intelligence (as measured in IQ) and conscientiousness are hands down, the strongest predictors of success.  These two also measure success in higher education, military careers, and mid-level managerial positions.  Based on my observations, this is true.

However, as I’ve pointed out here before (see link here), creativity is another strong trait of leaders.  Senior leaders, who are not creative, rarely last long in their jobs.  Yet, as a personality trait, creativity is a poor measure of success in higher education, the military, or management.  Creativity is negatively associated with success in these fields, and thus it seems creativity retards growth and success in leaders.

That fact seems counterintuitive.  The many stories we heard in our childhood seem to support the notion that creative people are especially successful.  One of the meta-stories we’ve all heard about is of a leader who leads his people out of danger by doing things, not in the rule book.  The old stories typically employ dragons or serpents to symbolize evil.  The hero is the one who helps his people escape the dangers of where they live.

The biblical Moses led the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage to the Promised Land.  It is written in the Bible about the journey that Moses led his people using God’s word.  But Moses was also creative to hold the Israelites together during their long trek.  For example, for Moses to prove he was God’s servant, he struck a rock to get water to come out of it.  But God was not amused, and for this transgression, Moses was not allowed to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.  It appears that Moses’s creativity was not rewarded.

Creativity means not following the well-worn path.  It is about thinking of ways to accomplishing our tasks better, easier, and less expensively.  All organizations tend to stultify.  Bureaucracies slowly become fixed with rules and regulations, which become more than the original mission.  This ossification is why organizations must employ creative leaders.

It certainly takes more than a conscientious and intelligent leader to succeed.  Many traits matter a great deal.  But these are the two principal elements that no leader can be without.  These are preconditions, and there is no substitute other than a bit of creativity.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

23 thoughts on “What is the Best Predictor of Leader Success?

  1. Scotty Bush

    So true. Anyone disputing the argument put forward here by Gen. Satterfield can read the professional literature on personality predictors and find that he is correct. Thanks for another great article.

  2. Jake Tapper, Jr.

    Lots of controversy over the concept of IQ. But when we really get down to the facts of life, some people are born smarter than others. No denying it unless you are wearing pink, PC glasses to see the world.

  3. Greg Heyman

    I agree completely. With over 25 years experience with hiring and working in teams, I can say that many factors play a part but that conscientiousness and intelligence are the top two. Well done! I could write about many of the people I worked with that succeeded and support your answer here Gen. Satterfield but it would take too much space. They were all excellent workers AND good moral folks too.

  4. Danny Burkholder

    In nearly all the research that’s been done on student success in college, the most predictive indicator, time and again, is a student’s high school GPA. While for many this is now common knowledge, no matter how many times we share this finding it continues to shock people, and some simply don’t believe it. Interesting finding in this world of Political Correctness. This also supports what Gen. Satterfield has written today in his blog post. Yes, intelligence is it. Not complicated.

  5. Kenny Foster

    Science has proven that a certain boring quality is the best predictor of future success. It’s not intelligence or talent… it’s something that anyone can learn. It’s delayed gratification. Yup, simple …. ha ha ha… not easy however.

  6. Stacey Borden

    Worst predictors of success in hiring the right person for the job:
    1. School grades
    2. Tricky questions during the interview
    3. First impressions

    1. Eric Coda

      Good point, Stacey. But, what’s the biggest predictor of success in life? Take a guess and you’re likely to come up with something like talent, brains, grit, even luck or connections. And certainly all of these are great things to have if you’re looking to accomplish incredible things.

      1. Stacey Borden

        Thanks Eric. Just saw your note and appreciate you making a comment on it. There are more, like #3. how you look (beautiful or ugly).

  7. Georgie B.

    Success is something we all look forward to. No one starts out toward failure (at least those who are sane). Failure is to be avoided. But, of course, we have to look at the long view. We can fail in the short term if it meets our long term goals.

  8. Max Foster

    ou can’t assess team skills based on how likeable the person is, or how extroverted. Instead, find out what types of teams the person has been assigned to and observe the makeup of these teams over time. This is the best indicator of team skills, technical competency and cultural fit.

    1. JT Patterson

      I think we are looking at different things here. I agree that taking a close look at ‘how’ leaders have performed in the past is a factor, but if we look at personality (psych factors), we can support what Gen. Satterfield has argued. Good points Max.

    2. Bill Sanders, Jr.

      The more diverse exposure a person has in terms of experiences and interactions allows them to bring a different perspective to any business situation. More important, this diversity of thinking allows them to influence these groups more effectively than those with a more narrow or insular point of view. As a result they get assigned to more important projects and lead more important groups long before their peers.

    1. Tom Bushmaster

      I’m not so sure this is a contradiction. It says that intelligence will only take you so far and that is true but you got to have it if you want to be successful. Intelligence is a pre-condition and thus a determining factor. The author also confirms conscientiousness.

    2. the ace

      Slick article. Anyone can make this up that have a minimum of commonsense and some pretty-making graphic software. Maybe I’ll do it and have folks “read” my website too. ?

      1. Yusaf from Texas

        You have something there with your comment, the ace.

  9. William DeSanto

    Yep, you hit the nail on the proverbial head this time, Gen. Satterfield.

    1. Janna Faulkner

      ? I agree with William. Gen. Satterfield has a good track record. It’s based on a long exposure to leaders and those who have been successful and those who have failed. This track record is based on scientific observations and the intelligence to remember it.


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