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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2005

Eye on Psi Chi

Fall 2005| Volume 10 | Number 1


Producing Tomorrow's Leaders—In Psychology and Everything Else

Robert J. Sternberg, PhD
Yale University (CT)

Undergraduate psychology programs should develop not only knowledge in the field of psychology, but leadership for the field of psychology, as well as for the world in general. Psychologists are at the forefront in the study of leadership, and yet seemingly use few of the findings from their own research in developing future leaders within their field. Three key ingredients of effective leadership—creativity, intelligence, and wisdom—are discussed, and their respective roles in leadership explored.

What is the biggest problem facing the United States—and the world? Is it (a) education, (b) poverty, (c) crime, (d) warfare, (e) hunger, (f) women's right or non-right to choose whether to give birth, or what?

In this essay, I will argue that the greatest problem is none of these. It is leadership. Why? Because leaders decide where to put the priorities for solving problems, including all of the problems above.

If leadership is so important, what is its status in psychology? Marginal, at best. Most psychology departments do not have courses on leadership. Courses are much more likely to be in business schools, or, occasionally, in education schools with a specialty in educational administration. Moreover, most of the research being done on leadership now is being done in business schools, not in psychology departments. Leadership has become a marginalized field, despite its importance. Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Arthur Andersen, Adelphia—the list of leadership fiascoes goes on and on. These are cases of major ethical violations. But there are many kinds of bad leadership. Kellerman (2004) listed seven kinds of bad leadership, which she sees as resulting from incompetence, rigidity, intemperance, callousness, corruption, insularity, or evil. Worse, Lipman-Blumen (2004) has argued that people actually seek out bad leaders, believing that they will somehow provide them with the answers or the certainties that they cannot achieve for themselves.

The purpose of Psi Chi, historically, has not been merely to recognize high levels of achievement in psychology. To do that, it would merely have to recognize good students without any programmatic events to supplement that recognition. Rather, the purpose has been to identify the best students and then to develop the skills and attitudes that are conducive to leadership. If Psi Chi, or any other organization, wishes to develop skills and attitudes underlying good leadership, what skills and attitudes must it help develop? I have argued that effective leaders in any field possess high levels of WICS—wisdom, intelligence, and creativity synthesized. Underlying WICS is the notion that leadership is a decision. People decide to lead, and to be good, or bad, leaders. Let's consider the synthesis of the three attributes of WICS, starting at the end, with creativity.


Creativity reflects the skills and attitudes involved in generating ideas that are novel, high in quality, and appropriate to the task at hand. We have viewed creative people as those who are willing to defy the crowd (Sternberg & Lubart, 1995). Some of the greatest psychologists of modern times are those who have been willing to defy the crowd in psychology (Sternberg, 2003a). On this view, creative people are like good stock pickers--they formulate ideas whose value others may not see at first, and then they persuade others to accept their ideas. Eventually, they move on to the next idea. We refer to this process as "buying low and selling high in the world of ideas."

The first step toward leadership is having creative ideas. When organizations select leaders, they typically want someone who can solve preexisting problems that have defied solution as well as someone who can solve the unexpected challenges that lie ahead--in other words, someone who can see old problems in new ways and new problems with fresh perspectives. But organizations do not always choose new leaders in a way that maximizes creativity. For example, when leaders are chosen by committees composed of individuals already in the organization, those individuals may be conservative and choose someone who fits into already existing organizational cultural norms and perspectives. When leaders are chosen by election, voters may be more persuaded by effective rhetoric than by a coherent vision for a new future. Thus, in the end, people who are chosen for leadership roles may not always be the most creative ones under consideration. Moreover, there are different ways in which they can be creative (Sternberg, Kaufman, & Pretz, 2003).

Leaders of organizations can be creative in different ways.

  • Replicators do more or less what the previous leaders did and for the same reason.
  • Redefiners do more or less what the previous leaders did, but give different reasons for doing what they are doing.
  • Forward incrementers move the organization forward in the same direction that it was going before and in relatively small steps.
  • Advance forward incrementers move the organization forward in the same direction that it was going before but in relatively large steps.
  • Redirectors take organizations from where they are into new directions.
  • Reinitiators essentially reinvent organizations; they start over from scratch.
  • Synthesizers try to find a direction that represents an integration of a number of different trends within the organization.

No one way of being creative is all-around "best." What is best for a given organization depends on the situation in which the organization finds itself. But truly to be a creative leader, one must have certain mindsets that promote creative leadership. These are (Sternberg & Lubart, 1995):

  • Willingness to see problems in new ways. Often leaders and followers alike get stuck in old ways of seeing things.
  • Willingness to scrutinize decisions. No matter how creative someone is, the individual will sometimes have ideas that are either conceptually bad, or that just do not work. Creative leaders ask tough questions about ideas--their own and others'--and then they act on their scrutiny of these ideas.
  • Willingness to sell ideas. Creative ideas do not sell themselves. Leaders have to sell them. The more the ideas defy conventional ways of doing things, the harder it is to sell the creative ideas.
  • Willingness to surmount obstacles. Creative people and creative ideas always encounter obstacles. Sometimes, these obstacles seem overwhelming. The question then is whether the individual is willing to persevere to overcome the obstacles.
  • Willingness to use but also to set aside knowledge. Knowledge can either help or hinder creativity. On the one hand, one cannot go beyond existing ideas without knowing what those ideas are. On the other hand, knowledge can lead to entrenchment so that one has trouble seeing things in new ways. One's knowledge can lead to tunnel vision.
  • Willingness to take sensible risks. Creativity almost always involves risk-taking. The more an idea defies the crowd, the riskier it is. The creative individual is willing to risk.
  • Willingness to tolerate ambiguity. There may be long periods of time in which the parameters or consequences of a creative idea are not clear. One must be willing to tolerate ambiguity long enough to fulfill the realization of the idea.
  • Self-efficacy. To be creative, one needs to believe in one's own ability to be creative. Such belief is especially important when others do not believe in one.
  • Willingness to grow. Creative people are willing to grow and to go beyond past ideas. They do not get stuck on an idea and then stay with it forever.
  • Courage. Defying the crowd ultimately requires the courage to go one's own way, even in the face of resistance.

In our research on creativity, we have found that creativity can be measured successfully through having people produce creative products (Lubart & Sternberg, 1995; Sternberg & Lubart, 1995); that creative people do tend to be more risk-taking than less creative ones (Lubart & Sternberg, 1995; Sternberg & Lubart, 1995); and that creative people are better able to think in novel, nonentrenched ways than are less creative ones (Sternberg, 1982; Sternberg & Gastel, 1989a, 1989b).

Successful Intelligence

Successful intelligence is one's skill in setting and meeting one's own goals in life, given the cultural context in which one lives. One is successfully intelligent by virtue of recognizing one's own strengths and capitalizing on them, and recognizing one's own weaknesses and correcting or compensating for them. Successful intelligence operates on the basis of three kinds of abilities: creative ability to generate ideas, analytical ability to make sure the ideas are good ideas, and practical abilities to ensure that the ideas work in practice and that one is able to convince others of their value.

Leadership can fail, or at least become less effective, as a result of a lack of any of these three skills. The creative part of intelligence refers specifically to creative abilities, and not to the whole of creativity discussed in the preceding section. Analytical abilities are the types measured by conventional tests of intelligence and, to a lesser extent, by tests of academic skills. These abilities are needed to analyze problems and critique potential solutions. Practical abilities are used to ensure that ideas are capable of being implemented, and to persuade people of the value of these ideas. The key point here is that leaders need to be able to sell their ideas. At the time I am writing this article, two countries—France and the Netherlands—recently voted down in separate referenda a new European Constitution that their leaders supported. The leaders failed to sell the followers on their ideas, and hence, the ideas were torpedoed.

Our research (e.g., Sternberg, Forsythe, et al., 2000) suggests that academic and practical intelligence are, largely, different things. In other words, someone can have a great deal of school smarts, but not so much common sense, and vice versa. Even people who study intelligence, who may be high in academic intelligence, are not necessarily high in common sense!

The implication of this fact is that our society may be somewhat dysfunctional when it comes to recognizing superior leadership potential. The society very heavily relies on the use of tests. In order to make one's way up the society—toward more education, toward better education, and toward higher-paying, more-responsible jobs—it helps greatly if one performs well on standardized tests. If one does not perform well, it often is difficult to gain access to the routes that lead to success and privilege. But if our claim is correct, the society may be reinforcing those with academic intelligence to an extent that is unwarranted, as practical skills do not always go hand-in-hand with academic ones.

On this view, the society should be testing abilities in broader ways that identify all of successful intelligence, not just a part of it. We have attempted such measurements in our own work on the Rainbow Project and the University of Michigan Business School Project (Sternberg, R. J., The Rainbow Project Collaborators, & University of Michigan Business School Project Collaborators, 2004). In the former, we have found that including tests of creative and practical intelligence as well as of academic intelligence can roughly double—at least for our sample—prediction of freshman-year grades, and substantially reduce differences in scores between members of diverse ethnic groups.


Wisdom is defined as one's use of one's intelligence, creativity, and knowledge for a common good, over the long and short terms, as guided by values, through a balance among one's own, other people's, and higher interests (such as community or global ones). In essence then, wise people are ones who use their abilities to further a common good (Sternberg, 1998, 2003b, 2004a). Wisdom can be measured in a variety of ways, such as by giving people life problems, asking them to solve those problems, and then scoring their responses in terms of the extent to which the responses adhere to the tenets of some theory of wisdom (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000).

Over time, Baltes and his colleagues (e.g., Baltes, Smith, & Staudinger, 1992; Baltes & Staudinger, 1993) have collected a wide range of data showing the empirical utility of the proposed theoretical and measurement approaches to wisdom. For example, Staudinger, Lopez and Baltes (1997) found that measures of intelligence and personality as well as their interface overlap with, but are non-identical to, measures of wisdom in terms of constructs measured. Staudinger, Smith, and Baltes (1992) showed that human-services professionals outperformed a control group on wisdom-related tasks. In a further set of studies, Staudinger and Baltes (1996) found that performance settings that were ecologically relevant to the lives of their participants and that provided for actual or "virtual" interaction of minds increased wisdom-related performance substantially.

People can be intelligent, and even successfully intelligent, but foolish. Josef Stalin, Adolph Hitler, and Mao Tse-tung all were, no doubt smart. They also were responsible, individually and collectively, for many millions of deaths. Many smart leaders behave in foolish ways. They commit fallacies in their thinking. What are the kinds of fallacies they commit?

The unrealistic optimism fallacy. This fallacy occurs when one believes one is so smart or powerful that it is pointless to worry about the outcomes, and especially the long-term ones, of what one does because everything will come out all right in the end—there is nothing to worry about, given one's brains or power. If one simply acts, the outcome will be fine. Clinton tended to repeat behavior that, first as Governor and then as President, was likely to come to a bad end. He seemed not to worry about it.

The egocentrism fallacy. This fallacy arises when one comes to think that one's own interests are the only ones that are important. One starts to ignore one's responsibilities to other people or to institutions. Sometimes, people in positions of responsibility may start off with good intentions, but then become corrupted by the power they wield and their seeming unaccountability to others for it. A prime minister, for example, might use his office in part or even primarily to escape prosecution, as has appeared to happen in some European countries in recent years.

The omniscience fallacy. This fallacy results from having available at one's disposal essentially any knowledge one might want that is, in fact, knowable. With a phone call, a powerful leader can have almost any kind of knowledge made available to him or her. At the same time, people look up to the powerful leader as extremely knowledgeable or even close to all-knowing. The powerful leader may then come to believe that he or she really is all-knowing. So may his or her staff, as illustrated by Janis (1972) in his analysis of victims of groupthink. In case after case, brilliant government officials made the most foolish of decisions, in part because they believed they knew much more than they did. They did not know what they did not know. For example, John F. Kennedy's invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba was based on faulty intelligence; so was the invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush.

The omnipotence fallacy. This fallacy results from the extreme power one wields, or believes one wields. The result is overextension, and often, abuse of power. Sometimes, leaders create internal or external enemies in order to demand more power for themselves to deal with the supposed enemies (Sternberg, 2004b). In the United States, the central government has arrogated more power than has been the case for any government in recent history on the grounds of alleged terrorist threats. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has turned one group against another, as has Hugo Chavez, each with what appears to be the similar goal of greatly expanding and maintaining his own power.

The invulnerability fallacy. This fallacy derives from the presence of the illusion of complete protection, such as might be provided by a large staff. People and especially leaders may seem to have many friends ready to protect them at a moment's notice. The leaders may shield themselves from individuals who are anything less than sycophantic.


Effective leaders exhibit a synthesis of three kinds of skills and attitudes. They use creativity to produce novel ideas, academic/analytical intelligence and attitudes to discern if they are good ideas, practical intelligence to make their ideas work and to get others to listen to them, and wisdom to ensure that their ideas promote a common good.

Although psychologists have been at the forefront in developing ideas about creativity (see Antonakis, Cianciolo, & Sternberg, 2004), they have been rather chary about putting their ideas about leadership into practice. Undergraduate and even graduate psychology students typically are taught little or nothing about leadership at all. And when they are, they are not typically shown how they can put to use what they have learned to become leaders themselves, in the field of psychology, or anywhere else either. It is time to practice what we preach. First, we should teach all undergraduates basic theories and research findings regarding leadership. Second, we should show them how to use ideas about leadership in their own lives, especially in but not limited to their work in psychology. Third, we should ourselves role model what we teach, so that our students can become the future leaders of tomorrow.

Ultimately, the view here is that people decide for leadership. Some years ago, I was asked if I wanted to run for President of the American Psychological Association. My first reaction was not to do it: I did not feel that I was extraverted enough. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I had a useful mission for the organization—unity. My goal was to unify a diverse and sometimes fractious organization. So I decided on a plan. I would act the role of someone running for APA President. I would do what such a person would do, knowing that I was no such person. After enacting the role for a few months, I became that person. I forgot I was acting. I decided for leadership. So can you.


Antonakis, J., Cianciolo, A. T., & Sternberg, R. J. (Eds.). (2004). The nature of leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Baltes, P. B., Smith, J., & Staudinger, U. (1992). Wisdom and successful aging. In T. B. Sonderegger (Ed.), Psychology and aging (pp. 123-167). Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Baltes, P. B., & Staudinger, U. M. (1993). The search for a psychology of wisdom. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2, 75-80.

Baltes, P. B., & Staudinger, U. M (2000). Wisdom: A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence. American Psychologist, 55, 122-135.

Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kellerman, B. (2004). Bad leadership. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Lipman-Blumen, J. (2004). The allure of toxic leaders: Why we follow destructive bosses and corrupt politicians--and how we can survive them. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lubart, T. I., & Sternberg, R. J. (1995). An investment approach to creativity: Theory and data. In S. M. Smith, T. B. Ward, & R. A. Finke (Eds.), The creative cognition approach (pp. 269-302). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Staudinger, U. M., & Baltes, P. M. (1996). Interactive minds: A facilitative setting for wisdom-related performance? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 746-762.

Staudinger, U. M., Lopez, D. F., & Baltes, P. B. (1997). The psychometric location of wisdom-related performance: Intelligence, personality, and more? Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 1200-1214.

Staudinger, U. M., Smith, J., & Baltes, P. B. (1992). Wisdom-related knowledge in life review task: Age differences and the role of professional specialization. Psychology and Aging, 7, 271-281.

Sternberg, R. J. (1982). Nonentrenchment in the assessment of intellectual giftedness. Gifted Child Quarterly, 26, 63-67.

Sternberg, R. J. (1998). A balance theory of wisdom. Review of General Psychology, 2, 347-365.

Sternberg, R. J. (Ed.). (2003a). Psychologists defying the crowd: Stories of those who battled the establishment and won. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Sternberg, R. J. (2003b). Wisdom, intelligence, and creativity synthesized. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (2004a). What is wisdom and how can we develop it? The annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 591, 164-174.

Sternberg, R. J. (2004b). Why smart people can be so foolish. European Psychologist, 9(3), 145-150.

Sternberg, R. J., Forsythe, G. B., Hedlund, J., Horvath, J., Snook, S., Williams, W. M., Wagner, R. K., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2000). Practical intelligence in everyday life. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J., & Gastel, J. (1989a). Coping with novelty in human intelligence: An empirical investigation. Intelligence, 13, 187-197.

Sternberg, R. J., & Gastel, J. (1989b). If dancers ate their shoes: Inductive reasoning with factual and counterfactual premises. Memory and Cognition, 17, 1-10.

Sternberg, R. J., Kaufman, J. C., & Pretz, J. E. (2003). A propulsion model of creative leadership. Leadership Quarterly, 14, 455-473.

Sternberg, R. J., & Lubart, T. I. (1995). Defying the crowd: Cultivating creativity in a culture of conformity. New York: Free Press.

Sternberg, R. J., The Rainbow Project Collaborators, & University of Michigan Business School Project Collaborators (2004). Theory based university admissions testing for a new millennium. Educational Psychologist, 39(3), 185-198.

Robert J. Sternberg received his PhD from Stanford University in 1975 and the BA summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with honors with exceptional distinction in psychology, from Yale University in 1972. He also holds honorary doctorates from the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain; the University of Leuven, Belgium; the University of Cyprus; the University of Paris V, France; and Constantine the Philosopher University, Slovakia. He is dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. Prior to that, he was IBM Professor of Psychology and Education in the Department of Psychology, professor of management in the School of Management, and director of the Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise at Yale. He continues to direct the Center from Tufts.

Sternberg also was the 2003 President of the American Psychological Association (APA). He was on the Board of Directors of APA (2002-04) and on the Board of Trustees of the APA Insurance Trust (2004). He is currently on the Board of Trustees of the American Psychological Foundation (2005-09) and of the Eastern Psychological Association (2005-07). Sternberg has also been president of APA's divisions of General Psychology (1), Educational Psychology (15), Psychology and the Arts (20), and Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology (24). Sternberg has been Acting Chair and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Psychology.

Sternberg has been listed in the APA Monitor on Psychology as one of the top 100 psychologists of the 20th century and is listed by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) as one of its most highly cited authors in psychology and psychiatry. He also was listed by the Esquire Register of outstanding men and women under 40 and was listed as one of 100 top young scientists by Science Digest. He is currently listed in Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in the East, Who's Who in Medicine and Healthcare, and Who's Who in Science and Engineering. He has served as editor of the Psychological Bulletin and is editor of The APA Review of Books: Contemporary Psychology.

Sternberg is the author of over 1,000 journal articles, book chapters, and books, and he has received over $18 million in government and other grants and contracts for his research. The central focus of his research is on intelligence, creativity, and wisdom, and he also has studied love and close relationships as well as hate. This research has been conducted on five different continents.

Author Note. Preparation of this article was supported by Contract MDA 903-92-K-0125 from the U.S. Army Research Institute and by a Grant Award # 31-1992-701 from the United States Department of Education, Institute for Educational Sciences, as administered by the Temple University Laboratory for Student Success. Grantees undertaking such projects are encouraged to express freely their professional judgment. This article, therefore, does not necessarily represent the position or policies of the U.S. Government, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

Copyright 2005 (Vol. 10, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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