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In the book A Question of Intelligence (pg. 140) by Daniel Seligman, he writes:

I spent some forty years as a writer and editor of Fortune magazine and during that time met hundreds of CEOs. Not all of them proved entirely lovable, and some of them were not particularly interesting when asked for opinions on social and political issues remote from their business concerns. But I cannot recall ever meeting a CEO who did not come across as highly intelligent.

Which is understandable. To get the job, executives must have tackled a fair number of complex business problems in the early and middle years of their careers and demonstrated an ability to think strategically about those problems. They must have avoided the screwups that inevitably overtake the not-so-smart. Executives also tend to need verbal reasoning skills. It helps in particular to have the ability to dominate the argument in meetings with peers and colleagues, something not possible if you keep getting your facts wrong and your logic muddled.

In the high quality journal Intelligence, scholar Jonathan Wai estimates that about 39% of Fortune 500 CEOs are intellectually gifted. For the purpose of Wai’s study, gifted was defined as the top 1% (IQ 135+), however I’ve argued that Wai’s methods actually defined gifted as the top 3% (IQ 128+).

If CEO IQ is normally distributed with a standard deviation of roughly 15 (which might be too high for a specific occupation, though there’s a lot of variability in the type of companies they run), then the fact that 39% have IQ’s of at least 128 suggests that the average Fortune 500 CEO has an IQ of 124. This suggests that the large majority of CEOs are highly intelligent (IQ 120+), but I think Seligman overstates his case in implying that out of the hundreds of CEOs he’s met, all were highly intelligent. They probably all seemed highly intelligent because he was only talking to them about their area of expertise: business. However assuming a bell curve, it’s quite likely that some of them are not intelligent at all; indeed some CEOs have made collosally stupid mistakes which cost their companies billions.

An average IQ of 124 also makes sense because it lower than an IQ of 130, which is what I’ve previously estimated to be the mean of self-made billionaires and U.S. presidents. A Fortune 500 CEO makes billion dollar decisions, but a self-made billionaire actually figured out how to get billions which is far more impressive, thus we should expect the self-made billionaire to be smarter. And CEOs may run Fortune 500 companies, but the president of the United States is the CEO of the world’s most powerful country, so U.S. presidents should also be smarter than Fortune 500 CEOs.

The IQ’s of female Fortune 500 CEOs

Jonathan Wai found that among female Fortune 500 CEOs, the frequency of giftedness was even higher, an astonishing 59%. If 59% have IQ’s of 128+, then, assuming a Gaussian distribution with an SD of 15, that implies that the average female elite CEO is brilliant, with an IQ of 131. This makes sense because sexism and other cultural barriers make it harder for women to rise to the top in a male dominated world. Throughout history, the vast majority of powerful women have been the daughters or wives of powerful men (i.e. first ladies). So women who achieve great power on their own are likely to be extraordinary individuals. It’s been reported that Canada’s first female prime minister Kim Campbell scored perfect on a childhood IQ test, giving her an absolutely breathtaking IQ of about 154+, making her likely more intelligent than every single president in American history. As Campbell herself would say, “in order for a woman to be considered half as good as a man, she must be twice as good. Fortunately that’s easy!”