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08.1.2016 What skills are needed by leaders and what is intelligence: Weekender Column 97


Over the last few months of last year and particularly over the Christmas break, we have seen a number of incidents involving representatives from all three levels of government that have ranged from questionable to thoroughly disappointing.

It started me thinking. One of the great facets of a modern, free democracy is that any one of us can be Prime Minister; Premier or Mayor. There is no birthright or entitlement to leadership in our nation. The downside to our modern, free democracy is that any of us can be Prime Minister; Premier or Councillor without any skills, qualifications or aptitude for the job. The skills to perform well in an election are somewhat different to the skills required to be an effective leader. In fact some may argue that the skills are mutually exclusive. The skills required to appeal to the masses to attract a vote may be the opposite skills required when it comes to making decisions that are not necessarily popular – but necessary for good government. Often leaders need to make decisions that don’t take people where they want to go but where they need to go. There is a subtle difference.

Which then leads me to my next question. What are the skills needed to be a good leader. With Year 12 students across the nation having recently completed their HSC and now choosing the next step in their lives, there is a lot of talk about intelligence – based on the four magic numbers in an ATAR. I have a minor issue with the definition of intelligence. Much of what I see in the modern HSC I would not call intelligence. I would call it memory recollection. I am not sure what a technical definition of intelligence is but being able to remember a number of facts and then regurgitate them at will is, in my opinion, questionable as a sign of intelligence. Once upon a time I could recall phone numbers of all of my key suppliers and clients and pick up a phone and call them without picking up a phone book. But today, with phone numbers and every other fact in the known universe sitting in the palm of our hand, the skill of remembering facts is becoming less relevant. Why waste brainpower on remembering facts that can be just as quickly – and more accurately – recalled with a garden variety smartphone. I remember running into Yvonne Adele at a conference a couple of years ago. Yvonne created the Ms Megabyte persona in the mid-nineties. She appeared on the Today Show and wrote columns for Woman’s Day and Women’s Weekly. Her entire premise was that people had limited knowledge in relation to computers and she would answer IT related issues from people that would send in questions to her. She was very successful with the concept. When I bumped into her, I asked her what happened to Ms Megabyte. She quite simply explained that a little thing called the Internet killed her off. Why bother sending questions in to a columnist and waiting for the next edition of the magazine to be published when you can have your answer in 28 seconds. The same applies to memorisation – why bother remembering facts and figures when the Internet is always at hand – literally.

Should intelligence then be defined as the ability to solve problems? I remember sitting a variety of IQ tests as a child. The questions seemed relatively easy – but totally irrelevant. Spot the sequence in a series of numbers. Explain the actions needed to go from shape 1 to shape 2. I can’t remember ever needing to spot which number comes next in the real world. Critical thinking seems to be a lost art and it can lead to superior problem solving but I don’t know of a simple test for critical thinking abilities. Perhaps intelligence should be measured on creative ability. Who can come up with the most innovative solution to a specific problem? But then creativity goes deeper than that. It has been famously said that it is not the answer that wins you a Nobel Prize – it is the question. If you can ask the right question – and then solve that – that can make a real difference to the world. How do you measure THAT in the HSC?

Perhaps the real answer is that intelligence can be defined in a range of ways dependent on the situation. You may describe someone as an ‘athlete’ or ‘fit’ but it isn’t universal. Chris Martin played 71 Test matches for New Zealand taking 233 Test wickets so you would describe him as an athlete. He even managed 14 catches. But he is generally regarded as the worst batsman in the history of Test cricket with a total of 123 runs at an average of 2.36. Most of our third grade cricketers in Dubbo would be better with the willow in their hand. The point is that we accept specialisation in sport and accept that people can be incredibly successful in one sporting endeavour but it doesn’t translate to all sports. Intelligence should be the same. We should accept that people can be incredibly talented using their brains in one field – even if that field is not one generally accepted as an ‘intelligent’ field. City folk who sit in traffic for three hours a day and shuffle paper when they get to work might consider farmers who grow our food to be below their intelligence level but I guarantee most degree holding employees sitting in offices in Sydney would be all at sea if they had to run a farm for a year.

Which all comes back to our politicians. Mike Baird, one of our more successful politicians from recent years, was recently quoted as saying that his HSC results were average at best. We would generally say that we want a Premier that is intelligent but if we define intelligence as high HSC results, then our Premier has failed that test. Which comes to my real point. The real skills to be a successful politician and leader are not measured in an exam at the end of Year 12. The real measure is one of transparency; common-sense; communication; decision-making and being in touch with our society – plus so much more. I am not sure we ever know what we are going to get when we elect a leader but it doesn’t take too long to find out if we have elected people that we think are good leaders. Whether we call them intelligent or not is an entirely different story!