Intelligence alone can only take you so far. Top executives excel at leveraging intelligence—and not only their own intelligence, but also that of others.

An executive making a complex presentation to a room full of businesspeople

To succeed as an executive, you must be able to:

  • Find the best solution in any situation. This includes seeing a problem from different perspectives and considering the complex shades of grey.
  • Think quickly, taking the right amount of time to process the information at hand without stalling.
  • Stay flexible enough in your thinking to take in new insights and perspectives.
  • Allow others to contribute their own intelligence.
  • Facilitate conversations that draw out brilliance from others.

Virtually everyone has room to improve in these areas. If you want to do better, then here are a few ways to take your performance to the next level.

How to Improve at Leveraging Intelligence as an Executive

1. Increase Intellectual Agility

Intellectual agility is the ability to quickly change your perceptions based on new information. Executives with high intellectual agility are willing and able to see things from a new point of view they had not previously considered.

When old ways of thinking worsen a problem, and new insight is offered, you must be able to adjust your thinking. You might not change your beliefs every time, but you must improve your ability to do so to increase your intellectual agility.

In a world that is growing in complexity of thought, you must be able to look at problems in new ways. This includes making decisions based on constantly changing information, and seeking answers beyond what you currently understand.

Sticking to “business as usual” and ignoring new opportunities or innovations will close doors. As a top leader, you must be adaptable and flexible in your thinking. There is rarely a single answer to a complex question. Being intellectually agile allows you to find the best solutions in the shortest amount of time.

Intellectual agility powers other competencies, such as Creating Innovation. According to Scrum Alliance, CEOs and C-suite executives are seen as the major drivers for organizational agility, which starts with “embracing an agile mindset and remaining flexible in the face of change.” Executives must foster an environment of intellectual agility, because it serves as a foundation for organizational agility.

2. Push Yourself to Think Quicker on the Fly

A woman leveraging intelligence by brainstorming

Being able to think on the fly is a skill that top executives must master. We are often put on the spot and have to make decisions quickly. Our brains need to fire instantly in interviews, when facing inquiries from the press, and in many other situations.

You can develop quick thinking by working on business improvisation skills—those which focus on listening and following body language clues to form responses. Listening, rather than thinking ahead, helps you receive and process information, respond creatively and thoughtfully, and observe how your communication is being received. Mastering this skill builds influence among team members (and media) by building rapport.

3. Decrease Need for Processing Time

Your primary responsibilities as an executive are driving action and driving results. If you spend hours or days figuring out how to address unexpected challenges and changes, your entire organization will grind to a halt. Decreasing your need for processing time will make you a much more effective executive.

How can you decrease your need for processing time? Good ways include:

  1. Avoid over-analyzing. Yes, do any necessary research and look at the decision from various sides. But don’t get stuck there in “analysis paralysis.” Once you have sufficient information, act on it.
  2. Set yourself a short deadline for each decision. When time is up, decide.
  3. If others need to be involved in the decision, set time limits for discussion. Hold others to the same deadline you’ve set for yourself. Once the decision is made, make it clear that it is final.

4. Increase Expectations of Your Own Flexibility

The higher up in an organization you get, the more flexibility is required of you. Often, emerging executives expect the opposite. They tend to believe that the higher they climb, the more control they will have, and therefore the less flexibility they will need. But in order to be effective, you need to exercise less control and more flexibility. To achieve this, you must create habits that allow you to be increasingly flexible. Some ways to do this include:

  1. Meeting between diverse businesspeopleLooking for diversity and seeking to understand another person’s or group’s perspective. Diversity can include race, ethnicity, birthplace, socio-economic status, disability, beliefs, culture, hobbies, interests, etc.
  2. Exposing yourself to new and different points of view, such as by reading books or watching movies outside your usual areas of interest.
  3. Changing a routine in order to see things in a different way. This could include taking a different route to work, starting and/or ending at a different time of day, or meeting in a new location.
  4. Solving a problem in a new way. Consider using a new method of problem-solving based on new research, varying personality styles, or even a trend. Let everything involve learning and feedback. That way, even things that don’t work won’t be wastes of time.

5. Avoid Black-and-White, Either/or Thinking

Black-and-white, either/or thinking is very rigid and limiting. While some things in business really are one way or another, most exist in some shade of gray. Leveraging intelligence means seeing the world beyond black and white. Those who do this are more able to creatively solve problems, and can leverage others’ intelligence for better decision-making and results. Developing this flexibility often comes through asking more questions, such as:

  • What other solutions are possible?
  • What are the pros and cons of either solution?
  • Is there a win-win?
  • Has anyone else approached this a different way?
  • What are other options or perspectives on this issue?

6. Draw Out Brilliance from Others

As an executive, not only do you need to leverage your own intelligence, you need to leverage the intelligence of others as well. No one person has all the intellectual horsepower needed for an organization to achieve its full potential. Everyone has brilliance that they bring to the table. Your role is to draw out this brilliance and leverage the combined intelligence of all members of your team.

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, whose theory of multiple intelligences showed that there are many ways of leveraging intelligence

Revolutionary psychologist Howard Gardner. Image credit: Interaction-Design.org [CC BY-SA].

Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist, theorized there are at least eight types of intelligence. These include musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. He later considered adding existential and moral intelligences to this list.

You must be an expert facilitator to draw out someone’s unique intelligence. The belief that only the leadership team can dispense knowledge or ideas is outdated and wrong. A true leader knows how to ask the right questions to raise innovation to its highest level.

To draw out brilliance and leverage intelligence from others, you must successfully:

  • Conduct team meetings, being intentional about soliciting input from staff.
  • Create systems for collecting people’s thoughts outside of team meetings.
  • Engage in open, transparent conversations.
  • Have strategic operational review meetings.

Improving your competency in Creating Innovation will also help you draw out brilliance from others. You may also want to work on developing your emotional intelligence.

Why Does the Leveraging Intelligence Competency Matter?

Leveraging Intelligence allows you to achieve greater results, both personally and in your organization. If you fail to develop this competency, you will find yourself unable to advance your career.

Without the ability to leverage the intelligence of yourself or others, you can only do the best your current skills allow. You won’t grow, and neither will your team. You can get stuck in old ways of doing things, becoming rigid in your thinking and slow in your decision-making. It will cost you rapport with team members and others both inside and outside your organization.

Leveraging Intelligence isn’t simply about being smart enough. It is about mental agility, open-mindedness, and the ability to draw brilliance from others.

Developing This Strength

Strengthening your competency in Leveraging Intelligence requires you to first examine your own mindset and behaviors. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How are you leveraging your own intelligence, as well as that of others?
  • How are you doing with thinking fast, processing quickly, and reconsidering your positions when faced with new information?
  • In what areas are you rigid or inflexible?
  • Are you bringing out the brilliance of others when you meet with them?

Then, you can strengthen your weaker areas through online research and reading relevant books. Quiet Leadership by David Rock, Mental Agility by Patrick King, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman are excellent resources.

Finally, consider enlisting a coach to keep you accountable and help you improve in each of these areas, especially those where you have the most opportunity to do better. If you are a genuine CEO or senior executive, I would be happy to coach you. Click the button below to schedule the first of several complimentary coaching sessions:

Complimentary Executive Coaching

About This Competency

Leveraging Intelligence is one of SOLID’s 50 competencies critical to executive success. It falls under the category of Execution, one of 5 categories within the competency model, which is explained and downloadable at the end of this article. Overall, executives are responsible for, and must be competent in:

E5. LEVERAGING INTELLIGENCE: Increasing intellectual agility, pushing oneself to think quicker on the fly; decreasing need for processing time; increasing expectations of self to be more flexible; avoiding black-and-white, either/or thinking; drawing out brilliance from others.

Our Competency Model

SOLID Executive Competencies: What It Takes to Be an ExecutiveThe SOLID Competency Model is based on two decades of research. It is founded on the premise that all executive competencies can be categorized into these five groupings: Core Character, Execution, Relationship, Management and Leadership. Executives must master all five categories to achieve excellence in their roles. This model is useful for gauging and quantifying your skillset, understanding what it takes to be an effective executive, and providing a framework for improving performance. For more information, download “SOLID Executive Competencies: What It Takes to Be an Executive.”

Eliminate Executive Blind Spots ebookLooking constructively at yourself isn’t easy, but doing so provides the catalyst for transformational change. Having a balanced, objective look at your skillset and a willingness to be self-critical for the sake of continuous improvement is a major marker of a top executive. Take the next step and download “Eliminate Executive Blind Spots” to explore your strengths and weaknesses and remove any blind spots you may have.

About the Author

Daniel J. Mueller in Sao Paulo's Restaurant, Austin, TXDaniel J. Mueller is President & CEO of SOLIDleaders. An executive coach since 1986, he has worked one-on-one with over 1,500 senior executives, most of whom achieved transformational change. His specialties are leadership coaching (helping executives improve their performance), executive career coaching (helping executives transition from one role to another), and executive onboarding coaching (helping executives start new roles). You can find Daniel in Austin, Texas.