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Education competencies: Intellectual acumen

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success. View all competencies .


Is intelligent and capable; deals with concepts and complexity comfortably; is good at learning and deciphering new knowledge; able to assimilate new skills independently.

Proficiency level

Level 1: Basic Level 2: Intermediate Level 3: Advanced Level 4: Expert
Learns new skills with appropriate guidance and training Is intelligent and capable Is known by others as an intelligent and capable individual Regarded by others as an exceptional, capable individual and as a powerhouse of intelligence and wisdom
Can handle concepts and complexity Handles concepts and complexity comfortably and can communicate and summarize them effectively to others Handles concepts and complexity adeptly; provides insight and understanding for others; sees patterns, connections, and relationships that structure complexity Adeptly handles concepts and complexity; blends analysis, knowledge, and insight to effectively assess and employ information to enhance personal and organizational performance
Can adapt learned concepts to new situations Able to assimilate new skills independently Has good judgment as to what information is significant and useable in each situation Has a command of language skills and easily communicates information and concepts (simple and complex) to others
Displays surface learning of skills and concepts and applies the learning to the workplace Is good at learning and deciphering new knowledge and decides when and if to apply it to specific situations Demonstrates strong understanding of complex ideas and appropriately integrates them into the workplace Readily grasps and assimilates complex ideas and appropriately integrates them into the workplace

Overdoing intellectual acumen

  • May use intelligence to dominate and intimidate others
  • May not be able to relate to those less intelligent
  • May only accept own solutions
  • May be impatient with due process

Essential questions

To improve your proficiency, ask yourself the following questions on a regular basis:

  • What concepts can I take from one area of my job and apply to a problem in another?
  • What new skill have I taught myself lately?
  • What patterns do I see in a problem situation that I can point out to facilitate a solution?
  • When was the last time I helped someone through a crisis without getting emotional?
  • Did I consider at least three possible alternatives to solve my latest problem?
  • When was the last time I tried to analyze how and why something works?

To avoid overdoing intellectual acumen, ask yourself:

  • Am I condescending when explaining something to others?
  • Am I able to consider others' solutions as viable?
  • Am I impatient with others who learn slowly?

Interview questions

  • Please share a situation that demonstrates that others regard you as an intelligent and capable individual. What was the situation, and what leads you to your conclusion?
  • Describe a time when you had to use your understanding of complex concepts to enhance your own performance or the performance of the organization. To what extent did you need to communicate those concepts in ways that others would understand? How did you accomplish this, and how did you know they understood? What were your results?
  • Describe a situation that demonstrates your ability to apply new learned concepts to a new situation you faced. I am specifically interested in how you determined what information was significant and useable and what information was not.
  • Share a time when you gained new knowledge or ideas and applied them in the workplace. What was the information, and how did you apply it? What results did you achieve as a result?

Learning on the job

Learning on your own: These self-development remedies will help you build your skill(s).
  • Cool down: When getting emotional, wait a few minutes to regain composure. Don't make decisions in a heated emotional state.
  • Take time to think: Think things through; mentally review the ramifications of the problem or challenge. Consider several options.
  • Realize that rigid or narrow beliefs decrease the use of your brain power: Try to think outside your belief boundaries and view situations from a different perspective.
  • Jump-start your mind: Do various mental exercises to keep your thinking sharp. For example, you can make checklists, run mental scenarios, weigh pros and cons, visualize, and mentally organize.
  • Learn to separate your opinions from facts you know: Preconceived notions cloud your thinking.
  • Turn off your answer program: Spend half of your problem-solving time taking in the facts; then craft solutions.
  • Think systems: Consider how and why things work; analyze events and processes.
  • Exercise your brain: Tackle some crossword puzzles and mental puzzle materials. Organize concepts.
  • Visualize: Envision problems and challenges in the form of pictures and flow charts.
  • Access great minds: Study the works of great philosophers and thinkers. Examine how they used their intellectual skills.
Learning from develop-in-place assignments: These part-time develop-in-place assignments will help you build your skill(s).
  • Relaunch an existing program or procedure that’s not doing well.
  • Teach a course, seminar, or workshop on something you don't know well.
  • Teach or coach someone how to do something you are not an expert in.
  • Manage a group through a crisis.
  • Assemble a team of diverse people to accomplish a difficult task.
Learning more from your plan: These additional remedies will help make this development plan more effective for you.
  • Learning to learn better:
    • Keep a learning journal. Examine how you used your strengths and weaknesses, what worked in past experiences, and what didn't. Consider ways to do things differently next time.
    • Skim data repeatedly to find insights. Reread available information until it makes sense.
  • Learning from experience, feedback, and other people:
    • Get feedback from those in authority. Communicate that you are open to constructive criticism and are willing to work on issues they view as important.
    • Participate in insight events. Take a course designed to assess skills and provide feedback to help you develop self-knowledge.

Recommended readings

  • Aunger, Robert.The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think.New York: The Free Press, 2002.
  • Epstein, Seymour, Ph.D., with Archie Brodsky.You’re Smarter Than You Think—How to Develop Your Practical Intelligence for Success in Living.New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
  • Flynn, Daniel J.Intellectual Morons: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas.New York: Crown Business Publishing, 2004.
  • Gardner, Howard.Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice.New York: Basic Books, 1993.
  • Gardner, Howard.Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds.Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004.
  • Glickman, Rosalene.Optimal Thinking: How to Be Your Best Self.New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002.
  • Goleman, Daniel, Annie McKee, and Richard E. Boyatzis.Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence.Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
  • Maxwell, John C.Thinking for a Change: 11 Ways Highly Successful People Approach Life and Work.New York: Warner Books, 2003.
  • McCoy, Charles W., Jr.Why Didn’t I Think of That? Think the Unthinkable and Achieve Creative Greatness.Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.
  • Ritchhart, Ron.Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Get It.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc. 2002.
  • Sofo, Francesco.Six Myths of Critical Thinking.Business & Professional Publishing, 2003.
  • Sternberg, Robert J.Thinking Styles.Boston: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Wellman, Annette Moser.The Five Faces of Genius: Creative Thinking Styles to Succeed at Work.New York: Penguin Books, 2002.

Next steps

Copyright © 1992, 1996, 2001-2003 by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This work is derived from the LEADERSHIP ARCHITECT® Competency Library developed and copyrighted by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo for Lominger Limited, Inc.

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success.

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