Intelligent Application

Exploring Intelligence

A vital skill of a leader is to ask intelligent questions“.

We can look back in history in understanding the ethical and moral grounding for leadership in setting the right context for the right questions. The concept of ‘practical wisdom (phronesis)’ Aristotle’s intellectual virtue concerned with doing is a good starting point. Practical wisdom, as we argue below, aligns well to the practice of leadership and the requirement to lead in the public interest. Theories can only be useful if they improve the practice of leadership. Practice will rely on intelligence. Intelligence-led leadership can only be achieved if leaders create the conditions in which intelligent questions are posed and collective others are empowered and enabled to come up with solutions. In this topic, we explore what we mean by intelligent leadership. We begin with some practical definitions and then explore the different forms of intelligence. We will look at four different types of intelligence this is intrinsic to us as individuals. Collective intelligence requires that our stated knowledge is supported by evidence. Finally, we return to our notion of practical wisdom and will then continue with looking at how our individual and collective intelligence are built and integrated in achieving our outcomes.

What is Intelligent Leadership?

The notion of intelligent leadership is less to do with personal or emotional intelligence but is more to do with collective intelligence in applying knowledge and understanding to the practice of leading1.

We define intelligent leadership as:

“a cognitive concept and process that supports collective problem solving within a network or partnership context. Such partners often need to ‘pool’ knowledge expertise, funding and other resources in support of a shared aim through shared understanding and increased shared situational awareness in the achievement of shared goals”.

It is a form of public leadership; a collective leadership style (Brookes and Grint, 2010). In the public sector, collective leadership is considered to be an essential way of dealing with the complexity of public service delivery particularly in an age of austerity. Intelligent leadership holds promise as a mechanism to bridge the gap between vision and implementation and known and unknowns based upon the best available evidence. This would apply whether the aim is to improve the education of our future generations, the safety of our society or, at a more specific level, the experience of individual members of the public, whether this is as a victim of a crime or a patient.


Four Forms of Intrinsic Intelligence


Intelligent leadership is also viewed as a means of dealing with a leadership deficit (which we reviewed earlier). This can be achieved through a (Sydänmaanlakka, 2008:4) through a combination of four kinds of intelligence2:

  • The intelligence of the hand
    (the skill to do things);
  • the intelligence of the head
    (the ability to reason things out);
  • the intelligence of the heart
    (awareness of one’s own feelings); and
  • the intelligence of the soul
    (clarity over the values guiding all action).

Sydänmaanlakka describes the intelligence of the soul as the most important; “real intelligence lies at the level of being” (ibid, 2008:4).  Intelligent leadership represents a shared and collaborative mechanism of leadership and yet is this compatible with its notion as real intelligence at the level of being? The answer must, of course, be yes, as behind every network and forming part of every relationship, are individuals.

This is why leadership both begins and ends with people. And, it begins with you and me as individuals. We need to know ourself before we can know other people. Our self image will determine much of how we behave and what we do and, ultimately, what we achieve. The ‘place’ of leadership starts with ‘self’ before we progress to our team, the organisation and its collaborating networks.[Design Note: Link to ALCS]

If intelligent leadership is viewed more as a mechanism of leadership rather than a style (or context), then it necessarily follows that the main outcome of the effective practice of intelligent leadership is a new way of doing things and can be considered as a means of drawing all elements of the practice of leadership together. It comprises both problem solving and decision-making processes.

Intelligent leadership has an impact on the way in which work is undertaken.

Start with Why
Start with You
Why are you leading?


Evidence-based Intelligence

There are four main ways in which effective intelligent leadership can be evidenced:

  1. Ensuring that decisions are based on the widest possible range of viewpoints.
  2. Creating ways to share and communicate effective innovation
  3. Balancing information of ‘the heart’ and that of the ‘head’ in guiding decisions; and
  4. Keeping up to date with current thinking and best practice to ensure that leadership impacts on the key purpose of the organisation.

Problem solving features strongly within the concept of intelligent leadership. The development and use of knowledge and skills is equally important. This will benefit from problem solving approaches. Knowledge, intelligently analysed, shared and used can be valuable tipping points in successful leadership. One commonly distinguishing factor between knowledge and skill is that knowledge is what is contained in the head and skill is that which is done by the hand. It is more complex than this, but it works well as an early distinction. It can be argued that it distinguishes between leadership (knowledge and wisdom) and management (skills and experience).


Einstein once argued:

Science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding”

Practical Wisdom

Aristotle, arguably one of the most eminent of Greek philosophers, distinguished the word phronesis from other forms of wisdom (such as episteme and techne) relating it more to practical wisdom rather than simply intellectual wisdom but within the context of ethics. Although the term phronesis encompasses intellectual wisdom, it also highlights the importance of linking theory to practice. It can thus be equated with practical wisdom. In today’s world, we can view this as that of intelligent leadership; not only acquiring relevant knowledge (episteme or epistemology), reasoning (nous) but also applying this knowledge in practice (phronesis). It is about practical judgment shown by good leaders4.


This is summed up well:

Practical wisdom (phronesis) is the intellectual virtue concerned with doing.”
(Aristotle et al., 2009:xvi)

From Brookes’ research the following key findings emerged in support of the notion of intelligent leadership:

The need for a greater level of openness and transparency is critical to the practice of intelligent leadership in the encouragement and development of evidence-based actions and outcomes and in sharing information.
The need to build both capacity and capability must represent an integrated part of an intelligent leadership approach in tackling shared goals that are in the public interest.
Space, time and mass represent the foundation of what is described as the Intelligent Leadership approach. This has the potential to bridge the gap between aspiration and delivery, telling and selling, and the short and long term.



is the issue or issues?


do we need to lead?


do we need to act?


are we going to tackle the issues?


can we have the greatest impact?


is best to lead?

The process is then followed within a virtuous cycle, following leadership action:


impact did it have?


did it have this impact?


will we succeed (if at all)?


did we achieve the impact?


can we continue to improve?


is best to lead?


  1. Brookes, S. & Grint, K. (2010) The new public leadership challenge. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
  2. Sydänmaanlakka, P. (2008) Intelligent Leadership And Creativity: Supporting Creativity Through Intelligent Leadership. Creativity And Innovation Management Integrating Inquiry And Action. Buffalo, New York.änmaanlakka, P. (2008) Intelligent Leadership And Creativity: Supporting Creativity Through Intelligent Leadership. Creativity And Innovation Management Integrating Inquiry And Action. Buffalo, New York., page 4.
  3. Enstein, A. (1954) Ideas and opinions. London: The Folio Society by arrangement with The Crown Publishing Group, page 43.
  4. Aristotle, Ross, W. D., Brown, L. & Dawson, B. (2009) The Nicomachean ethics [Electronic book] ([New ] ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.xvi.

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