Predicting Executives’ Ability to Think Strategically

male ceo posing
Topic(s): leadership, personality
Publication: Personnel Psychology (2011)
Article: Leadership and employees’ reactions to change: The role of leaders’ personal attributes and transformational leadership style 
Authors: L. Dragoni, I.-S. Oh, P. Vankatwyk, P.E. Tesluk
Reviewed by: Alexandra Rechlin

Effective leaders need to think strategically. For organizations looking to develop leaders or choose someone for a leadership position, it would help to know what predicts strategic thinking. In a recent study (Dragoni, Oh, Vankatwyk, & Tesluk, 2011), researchers investigated how work experience, cognitive ability, and personality traits relate to executives’ ability to think strategically.


Executives’ cognitive ability and openness to experience were related to their strategic thinking competency, with smarter executives and those who were more open to experience exhibiting better strategic thinking. To determine the accumulated work experience of participants, the authors assessed the extent to which they had taken on different roles and responsibilities (i.e., contributor, manager, lead strategist). Extraverted executives had more accumulated work experience, and the amount of work experience was also related to executives’ strategic thinking competency.

The authors weighed the relative importance of the different predictors in their analysis. Cognitive ability predicted 78.9% of the variation in strategic thinking ability (in contrast, accumulated work experience predicted 7%, openness predicted 2.6%, and extraversion predicted 2.3%).


On a practical level, what does this all mean? Cognitive ability is a great predictor of the ability to think strategically. In fact, it’s more important than accumulated experience. However, an executive who is less intelligent can somewhat make up for that with more work experience; it just might take him/her a little longer to learn from those experiences than it would for a more intelligent executive. You can’t change the intelligence of the leaders in your organization, but you can expose them to a variety of work experiences in which they take on different roles and responsibilities. Bottom line: the authors suggest that in a selection situation for a leadership position, both work experience and cognitive ability should be used to make decisions.


Dragoni, L., Oh, I.-S., Vankatwyk, P., & Tesluk, P. E. (2011). Developing executive leaders: The relative contribution of cognitive ability, personality, and the accumulation of work experience in predicting strategic thinking competency. Personnel Psychology, 64(4)829-864.