For many years I’ve been facilitating a 360 assessment and leadership development process for a deeply technical science/engineering association. These technical leaders usually score high in analytical skills and technical expertise. However, their overall leadership scores are generally well below those of other less technical groups. Many poorly rated participants are quite surprised — even shocked — by this feedback.

We often discuss how very smart leaders with deep technical expertise frequently direct rather than develop others. Their team members call this micromanagement. The leader feels it’s staying on topic of details — especially technical ones. Some come across as “if I want any of your ideas, I’ll give them to you.”

In a recent workshop, a technical leader confessed, “I struggle because I see things faster and more clearly than others. In projects where I am not the leader or where timing isn’t tight, this isn’t insurmountable. I breathe, relax, and enjoy helping others to grasp what they don’t see. But when I’m leading a team with tight timelines, I get stressed and feel like I don’t have time to go slow. I think I send the message to my team that I don’t want to hear their input (I do, but I wish they were able to grasp things faster). This can make my team feel that they’re left behind.”

Since participation in this career/leadership program for “high potentials” is voluntary, defensiveness is usually low, and interest in learning and developing is high. These leaders often realize they’re typical of many technical team and project leaders who were promoted for their technical skills, experience, and ability to get things done, not their people leadership or “soft skills.”

We discuss how coming up with strong solutions that aren’t well supported by team implementation often sputter and too frequently fail. Directive, brightest-person-in-the-room leaders build co-dependence on them as the chief problem solver and crisis manager. Increasingly, their teams back off and look to the leader for solutions. This weakens the team’s crisis/problem-solving competence and confidence. So many of these leaders increase their workload and stress as they load ever more monkeys on their backs.

STEMM Leaders Are Less Effective

Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine (STEMM) are vital to our economy, climate, health, and well-being. These fields are largely responsible for humankind’s rapid progress in the past two centuries. STEMM will play a major role in determining our future trajectory in dealing with humanity’s biggest problems.

So weak STEMM leadership effectiveness is especially critical. Recently Zenger Folkman compared 360 leadership assessments of 16,419 STEMM leaders to 57,706 non-STEMM leaders. They found that STEMM leaders were rated lower than their non-STEMM counterparts. As Jack Zenger reported in his Forbes article, here are a few key findings of the study:

  • STEMM leaders are myopically focused internally and less customer and externally-focused.
  • Weaker interpersonal skills, such as Inspiring Others, Communicating, Developing Others, and Collaboration, reduce their leadership effectiveness.
  • Lower scores on Champions Change, Strategic Perspective, and Innovation show these leaders are failing to see the changes needed in their fields or organizations.
  • Lower ratings on Setting Stretch Goals and Taking Initiative indicate leaders are stuck in existing practices and not stretching boundaries.
  • Lower ratings on Learning Agility indicate that many of the STEMM leaders don’t ask for or listen to feedback and resist making personal changes.

In looking at the causes of lower STEMM leadership, Jack writes, “we wonder if staying abreast of the technology in the STEMM disciplines is so engrossing and demanding that it leaves little time and energy for the interpersonal and organizational requirements of leadership. Further, this immersion in the technology occurs in the formative years of a person’s higher education and career, when most patterns of social and emotional demeanor are set into personality traits.”

Growing STEMM Leadership

Jack reports that STEMM leaders score higher on technical/professional expertise and analytical skills. He also points to the IQ versus EQ dilemma that reduces so many brilliant technical leader’s effectiveness; “given the nature of the STEMM leaders’ weaker competencies, data from emotional intelligence tests (EQ) would show the opposite trend, and non-STEMM leaders would score higher.”

Over two decades of research shows Emotional Intelligence is vital to highly effective leadership. In STEMM fields, high IQ boosts technical/professional expertise. But as, psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman, one of the founders of the EQ field found in his early research, “High IQ & technical expertise can have a paradoxical effect among seemingly promising people who fail. In a study of once-successful managers who failed, most were technically brilliant. And their technical skills were often the very reason they were promoted into management in the first place. But once they reached higher positions, their technical strength became a liability.”

Some technical/intellectual geniuses are emotional dunces. These brainiacs can run mental circles around us lesser mortals. The worst ones “don’t suffer fools gladly.” Their cutting wit or biting sarcasm can show an arrogant, superior attitude that arouses resentment and kills cooperation. This often damages relationships, businesses, families, or teams. For them, “STEMM leadership” is an oxymoron like telco service, political science, or holy war.

There’s not a lot we can do about the processing power between our ears. For the most part, we’re stuck with whatever IQ we’ve got. The good news for many of us is that our IQ is less important to success and happiness than our EQ. What’s even better is that EQ, unlike IQ, can be improved. If we’re green and growing, STEMM (and non-STEMM) leadership can be grown and strengthened.