Growth Insights for CEOs

CEO Brilliance Is Not Mandatory

Posted by The Chief Outsider

Today's guest blog is by Jerry Dilettuso, Partner at Newport Board Group

We make a basic assumption about CEOs: that they’re really smart. I mean they have to be, don’t they?  They’re CEOs after all, and they’re successful.Newport Board Group Logo (1) How could they reach that pinnacle if they weren’t smart? Ray Kroc, the founder of the McDonald’s hamburger chain, tells us, “The two most important requirements for major success are: first, being in the right place at the right time, and second, doing something about it.” He says nothing about smarts. Mr. Kroc also says, “While formal schooling is an important advantage, it is not a guarantee of success nor is its absence a fatal handicap.” We really ought to listen to Mr. Kroc. In addition to founding a wildly successful business based on an American institution, the hamburger, he is a member of an extremely exclusive club; the “Time 100,” a compilation of the 20th century’s 100 most influential people. 

The Formula

We tend to use the word “smart” rather loosely, and we apply it to people who are successful as if smart and successful are synonymous, which they most definitely are not. I used to equate smart with high IQ, but I don’t think that way anymore. In fact I’ve developed a formula for smart, especially CEO smart.  I call it the CIQ.  The formula for CIQ is: 

CIQ formula resized 600

Native brainpower is a constant. We’re born with it, and, within a limited range, it isn’t changeable. Both curiosity and disposition are, however, variable and they can be increased in the case of curiosity and improved in the case of disposition.

Seeing Patterns

Curiosity involves the willingness to learn. It’s about the inclination to want to understand the things we don’t know; how and why things work the way they do; how things got to be the way they are; how we can improve upon the way things are; what would have happened if certain things hadn’t happened; what might not have happened if certain things had happened; what we can do today to improve upon tomorrow. It’s about using all the knowledge we have accumulated to seek additional knowledge that will help us today to improve upon tomorrow. It’s about seeing patterns in today that helps us to see what could be tomorrow.   

Openness to Learn

Disposition is different. It’s about our openness to learn. It’s the realization that the one thing that is certain is that we don’t know it all…even those subjects in which we are expert; that we can never know enough; that there is always something more to learn. It’s also about our willingness to overcome some obstacles to learning. What kind of obstacles? Well, there are three that I consider paramount. One is our pre-conceived prejudices such as people are inherently lazy, or hierarchy is the best form of organization, or people who disagree aren’t team players, or my ideas are inherently better than your ideas, or I’m smarter than you.

Innovative Outcomes

Another obstacle is patience, or, rather, the lack thereof. We’ve been conditioned to believe that all activity must be fast paced, that everything must proceed as quickly as our computers think, that we’re really not doing our job if we don’t move the meeting along swiftly. Neither learning nor creativity adheres to that principle. What we perceive as someone’s ramblings may be a way by which an individual develops an important insight. If we shut her off while she is in mid-sentence, we exclude forever the benefit of that insight. Moreover, not all innovation comes in “wholes.”  In fact, most innovations come partially complete. We may have to sit through a number of idea development sessions, taking insights from each one, before we reach a truly innovative outcome.     

Doubting Certainty

An important obstacle to our ability to learn is certainty. If we have no doubts, we shut off discourse. Even when we are certain of the answer, we should ask the question. We may learn something in the way someone expresses the answer. We may even learn something that causes us to doubt our certainty. 

The second cousin to certainty is judgmental, which leads to criticism, both of which shut down an individual’s willingness to respond to our questions. Cynicism, anger, combativeness, and arrogance all impede discourse; neutrality and encouragement foster discourse. The former behavior impedes learning, while the latter encourages it.    

So I would contend that smart is a combination of our native brainpower times our curiosity, which is our willingness to learn, that is improved exponentially with our disposition to learn. By the way no one has cornered the market on this type of learning...least of all CEOs, whose disposition to learn is often limited, sometimes fatally so.

Jerry Delitusso, Newport Board Group

Jerry Dilettuso is a Member Executice at Executives in Action in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Contact Jerry at or on Linkedin.


Topics: CEO Perspectives, CEO Strategies