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You imply that less intelligent people are more able to delegate make use of advice for others. Is there any evidence for this? For example, Truman -- who you identify as an above average president of below average intelligence -- famously ignored the advice of the Los Alamos scientists on how long it would take Russia to build an atomic bomb. The scientists said "soon", Truman decided that would not happen for a long time and wasn't worth preparing for. He was obviously very wrong.


I am afraid that the part about relying on one's unconscious was quite a stretch. If some expert witness were to come to Mister Posner's court and give a convincing exposé of his guts feeling, I do hope Mister Posner would advise the jury to discard the information.

Moreover, Henry Kissinger, whom has been silently omitted, was both able and brilliant, and I am quite certain he never presented a suggestion to either Nixon or Ford backing it by saying that it came from "below the conscious level." Given, he was an academic, but I would have him as secretary way before anyone with terrain experience and some guts feelings.


I am afraid that the part about relying on one's unconscious was quite a stretch. If some expert witness were to come to Mister Posner's court and give a convincing exposé of his guts feeling, I do hope Mister Posner would advise the jury to discard the information.

Moreover, Henry Kissinger, whom has been silently omitted, was both able and brilliant, and I am quite certain he never presented a suggestion to either Nixon or Ford backing it by saying that it came from "below the conscious level." Granted, he was an academic, but I would have him as secretary way before anyone with terrain experience and some guts feelings.


Some of these comments remind me of a line from somewhere, "How little you see and understand Grasshopper". Or as Shakespeare was won't to put it, "There is more in earth and air, sea and sky, than is ever dreamt in your philosophy Horatio!" To turn ones back on intuition and the sub-concious is to turn ones back on probably more than fifty percent of our true intellectual capacity. There is something to be said for the old lizard portion of our brains.

If one were to study all of the "Great Leaders" of the world, the one commonality shared by all would be, a "VISION" that transcends time and space, logic and reason. A very, very rare commodity indeed. So, we're all going to have to learn to live with mediocrity and failure masquerading as brilliance. Ahh..., Reality!


I agree that Clinton wasn't a successful president, but I would go further - why does Posner imply that Bush's national security team has failed? You might get that impression from the mainstream media, but Posner is a blogger and should know better. As a legal scholar and judge, he should be ashamed if he doesn't read Instapundit. As an American, he should be ashamed for not supporting the troops.

Tom Rekdal

It may be true, as a general matter, that managerial excellence has less to do with cognitive brilliance in the leader and more to do with his skill at marshalling the expertise of subordinates. But I find it hard to see our failures in Vietnam and Iraq rooted in such weakness--or in a set of circumstances so "profoundly uncertain" that they defy analytical intelligence.

On the contrary, failure in these examples seem more directly related to a stubborn inability (either at the personal or institutional level) to recognize a copious flow of information indicating that the underlying assumptions of the policy were (and are) simply wrong. Doesn't intellectual flexibility play some role in the quality of leadership?


James, Identifying a foreign policy gaffe, has nothing to do with loyality or "the support of the troops" clich'e. BTW, I've already got one nephew in Central Baghdad and another completeing Boot Camp at Parris Island who will probably be posted to Anbar Province. So don't even bother with the "support the troops" clich'e. One question, "How come you're not there or training to go?" Just one thought to leave you with, recognizing a "bushwhack" (no pun intended) before it happens, is more often than not an act of intuition than a reasoned analysis.


To say that Bush and Cheney have failed, you would have to know what their actual goals were. It would be more accurate to say that Bush and Cheney have not not accomplished the goals of the American people - but that may simply be because the goals of Bush and Cheney are different than the goals of the American people.


Funny that Posner neglects to directly mention perhaps the most interesting and obvious modern case regarding the interplay of intelligence with leadership: George W. Bush. Posner only mentions the Iraq security team.
I know of no intellectual field in which Bush has succeeded, and he is generally regarded as a failure as a leader/President. As governor of Texas, however, Bush was a success. Why the discrepancy? Please, no flippant remarks about Bush's higher relative IQ vis-a-vis Texans as compared to the nation as a whole.

David Drake

It is much too early to say that George W. Bush and his team have generally failed, either in Iraq or as President.

President Lincoln was reviled and hated by most in the south and by many in the north while in office (and was, of course hated so badly that he was assassinated); President Truman's approval ratings were very low during his presidency, and only the last several years have he and President Eisenhower come to be recognized as successful, if not great, presidents.

Dan B

First of all, despite what a few fringe commenters might think, George W. Bush and the Iraq War have been monumental failures.

But more importantly, addressing Becker and Posner's posts, the real failure of Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and all the Neo-Conservatives in Bush's Administration was that they were so unbelievably BIASED. They had decided to invade Iraq as early as 1998, with their Project for A New American Century letter to President Clinton, and it is well-documented that they had affirmatively decided on invading Iraq immediately after 9/11. So is it any wonder that they cooked the intelligence so it fit their pro-war narrative? This is the same problem the Kennedy-Johnson team had under McNamarra. They were so convinced that war and continued war were the right solutions that they ignored all evidence or analysis to the contrary.


Wes, The goals were simple and clear. We're going to go in there, overthrow Saddam and his terrorist buddies and take the weapons of mass destruction away, create an Iraqi Democracy that will allow democratic principles to flow throughout the Middle East and transform it. As for strategy/tactics, not needed, we're going to play it ear. Any questions?


The reason for the failure of the Bush national security team in spite of the intelligence and experience of the members is because they fell into groupthink. There was a party line that had to be followed, and even moderately dissenting opinions, e.g., Powell, were not valued. In that sort of a scenario, intelligence doesn't matter.

Unfortunately, to put it another way, intelligence doesn't suppress arrogance and intransigence, both of which can nullify whatever advantage intelligence can confer.


N.E. Hatfield writes:Wes, The goals were simple and clear.I can't tell if this post is sarcasm but I feel like discussing it anyway.I would agree that the goals stated by Bush and Cheney were presented in a simple-minded way. Taken together, though, the goals were confusing and contradictory.We're going to go in there, overthrow Saddam...That goal was achieved and was probably a goal that Bush and Cheney actually had....and his terrorist buddies...Well, Bin Laden and company were thought to be on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and the country with the most ties to the 9/11 hijackers was Saudi Arabia. It would be very hard to argue that Bush and Cheney were motivated to invade Iraq in order to capture terrorists linked to 9/11 - or linked to any other attacks on the USA, for that matter....and take the weapons of mass destruction away,...If Bush and Cheney had actually thought that Saddam had an arsenal of nuclear weapons then they would have been extraordinarily foolish to invade. Invasion would have created a situation where the remnants of Saddam's government had nothing to lose, a powerful desire for retaliation and, by hypothesis, an arsenal of nuclear weapons in their posession. What Bush and Cheney probably thought was that Saddam possessed enough unconvention weapons to provide a justification for the invasion under international law but not enough unconventional weapons to actually be dangerous to the USA....create an Iraqi Democracy...Well, Bush and Cheney probably wanted something that looked superficially like an Iraqi democracy but, if you look at their other goals, it becomes clear that they absolutely did not (and do not) want Iraq to be governed by a genuine democracy. In particular, they want an Iraqi government that allows them to have permanent military bases and launch attacks on neighboring countries, they want full support for Israel and they want US corporations to control Iraq's oil. These are not goals that are compatible with a genuine Iraqi democracy....that will allow democratic principles to flow throughout the Middle East and transform it.If democracy by osmosis works so well then why isn't Cuba democratic? More to the point, if Bush and Cheney actually believed the whole "oppressive dictatorships promote Islamic radicalism that leads to terrorist attacks on the USA" thing, then they would have invaded Saudi Arabia. It is highly unlikely that Bush and Cheney intended the invasion of Iraq to lead to an infusion of "western" ideals into the region.As for strategy/tactics, not needed, we're going to play it ear.As many have pointed out, if the current strategy was not working to achieve Bush and Cheney's actual goals then Bush and Cheney would have changed their strategy.As far as I can tell, the current strategy achieves most of Bush and Cheney's goals. US oil companies, with close ties to Bush and Cheney, have access to Iraqi oil. Military contractors, with close ties to Bush and Cheney (e.g. Haliburton), are getting huge amounts of business. The situation in Iraq makes it difficult to argue against maintaining permanent military bases. Bush and Cheney have huge levels of influence in the Iraqi government (it's even situated on a US military base - imagine if the US government was situated on a Chinese military base). Bush and Cheney can probably even get away with launching the occasional attack on countries neighboring Iraq - for "interfering" in Iraq.On the whole, I'd say Bush and Cheney are actually achieving most of their goals. The only problem would be if the American people were to realize that Bush and Cheney don't have the same goals that the American people have.

Sandy Schwab

Thank you for eight thoughtful, information packed, interesting paragraphs on leadership and a Harvard president who apparently is no longer there....how difficult it would be to switch from Treasury in Washington, DC to Harvard! What a leap in cultures ...perhaps the man never got a chance....once again Posner's eight paragraphs have given us more to ponder than Becker's five -- both are marvelous...thanks again---Posner is accurate in his summation of how the top dog would have difficulty relating to junior 'know the lay of the bone' dog -- love his writing....weekly Vegas fan PS check out Anthony Hopkins' first screenplay ...SLIPSTREAM and LA VIEN ROSE (story about French singer Edith Piaf)(when will we have a movie about POSNER????)

Dan Cole

I'd like some information about the metric used to distinguish "successful" from "unsuccessful" presidents. After all, the entire argument about the absence of any necessary relation between intellectual ability and success as president assumes that the categorizations of presidents is correct. It's not obvious to me, for example, that Washington was a more successful president than Jefferson.
Clearly, Washington had certain advantages as president, including what was surely the most able cabinet ever assembled, including Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton. Washington also benefitted immensely from the lack of any organized political opposition. It's also worth noting that the presidency changed significantly, as an institution, between Washington's administration and Jefferson's. See Ackerman, The Failure of the Founding Fathers.


Yes i agree but the landscape has changed since!


I think it also goes into the personal. Brilliant minds are not superior at dealing with their personal lives either. How many intelligent lawyers/doctors/scientist/adademics have stupidly argued their less intelligent (or less trained) spouses into a corner instead of paying attention to the real issue at hand.

Just as clever lawyers can make intelligent arguments to promote faulty legal claims -- and the smartest judges see through it -- so do some hyper-intelligent government officials use their smarts to argue down their intuitive colleagues and critics. Clearly we do need the super-smart: for our society and our great lives, we owe the brilliant in the sciences, medicine, finance,the arts, law and other fields. And our leaders do need enough smarts to manage those under them, to understand and evaluate the information.

David Morris

Posner's post makes sense to me. In cognitive science, there is a distinction made between "declarative knowledge"--which is factual knowledge that you can put into words and analyze--and "procedural knowledge", which is knowledge of how to do things. Since these two different kinds of knowledge are, generally speaking, handled by different parts of the brain, it is quite possible to have declarative knowledge of something but little or no procedural knowledge, and vice versa.

Sometimes this can be counterintuitive. For example, most people have a very good procedural knowledge of how to tie a shoe, but a hazy declarative knowledge of it. It is not uncommon for a person to actually have to tie a shoe and watch what his own hands do in order to "learn" the declarative steps from his hands. And yet, this knowledge of tying a shoe started out as declarative knowledge before it was mastered as procedural knowledge (and forgotten declaratively). This can be seen just by watching any small child murmur about rabbits going through holes as he awkwardly goes through the steps of tying his shoe.

There are a whole bunch of similar examples--baseball players making split-second decisions when fielding a ball, drivers on the road weaving in and out of traffic, etc. When you do something over and over--even something very involved and complex--for a very long time, it gets subsumed into your procedural knowledge, and you just have a "knack" for it that can't necessarily be put into words for a manager or superior officer to analyze.

The same is true for leaders of nations, and I think our traditional term for a leader's "knack" for making good decisions is "wisdom". If wisdom is indeed something like an ability or skill or uncanny knack, then it would make sense that it would not necessarily correlate with having lots of declarative knowledge or being able to produce new declarative knowledge out of existing declarative knowledge (e.g., analysis).

Given how serious things are these days, though, it might be good to start trying to figure out what widsom does correlate with..


So many things jump out here. First of all no mention of the value of honesty. Remember Washington's cherry tree. The current administration obviously is sadly lacking on this score. Another is the failure to realize that mental capacity wanes. Cheney's multiple heart attacks and Bush's earlier substance abuse have dulled their senses. There has been also been an emotional disconnect - the compassionate conservatives have been shown to be reckless masochists. Bush's delays after the tsunami and hurricane Katrina stand next to Abugraib, Guantanamo and the renditions. Finally, the disdain, belittlement and censcoring of scientific research may
set back humanity for centuries. WAKE UP


Dan, In terms of your need for a "metric" in order to comprehend, please try the following continuum:

Franklin Roosevelt-successful
Abe Lincoln-somewhat successful
"Junior"-fill in the blank

James McNiece

David Morris hits the nail on the head.

I think the real difference Posner is speaking of is the difference between wisdom and intelligence. Part of being wise is understanding the limits of your own knowledge and capabilities of comperhension. Unfortunately, many very intelligent people do not confront these limits and never truly grapple with just how ignorant they are.

Second, like Dan Cole, I don't think it's so easy to determine who was and was not a great president. We tend to revere those presidents who get us into wars that we eventually win, but discount the achievements of presidents who take steps to preserve the peace. I think most of what determines being a successful president is sheer luck. For example, James K. Polk fabricated a reason to go to war with Mexico knowing that the American army was quite small and weak. Because we were lucky enough to win that war, he is now considered on of our best presidents. Had he lost the war, we would be hearing constant comparisons of him to Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush.

I'd be willing to bet that neither wisdom or intelligence correlates with any measure of success as strongly as simple chance.

Doestoevky's Poodle

What's the easiest thing to do? To create conundrums by not defining the terms of a problem. As soon as Posner completed the enormously laborious task of defining intelligence and leadership, he would have no problem to solve.

Sandy Schwab

See Howard Gardner (Harvard U), very popular in public education communities, who has written extensively about multiple intelligences, e.g., auditory, nature, music, visual, tactile, physical.....


What about good judgement? Not quite the same thing as wisdom. Especially the ability to choose the right people. What strikes me about the difference between Reagan and the current president is that the former seemed to choose well. The latter...not.

I worked in a government ministry in a capital city, and chief executives do not 'make decisions' so much as choose which advisor's advice to follow.

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