In our house, our kids know calling each other “stupid” is worse than dropping an “F” bomb. Heaven forbid they utter such a word, or the wrath of their parents will mete out swift justice. Perpetuating this rule in our household may be a holdover from my experience with a mentally ill sibling – or it may stem from my wife’s exposure to friends with learning disabilities. It could even be an unconscious alignment with a culture which often prizes raw intelligence above other skills.

The world’s fascination with being smart is nothing new. Surely the stone hammer and sharpened spear were monumental steps forward for our paleolithic ancestors whose success in the hunt increased both caloric intake and, consequently, survival for the tribe. Today, we’re not so unlike our distant relatives. Industries prize intelligence just the same. They pluck people out of institutions of higher learning which filter and groom a swath of up-and-coming thinkers. Likewise, we know the business of higher learning is unfathomably large, particularly in the United States where the average university spends almost double what the next closest country – Japan – spends on educating its students. Those of us who have encountered the cost of our kids’ education, or are still paying off our own student debt, are painfully aware of this – so much so that enrollment in trade-schools is up and the cost/benefit analysis of attending university is now a commonplace conversation. If raw intelligence can even be enhanced at universities, is the price tag worth it?

What are the origins of the modern love affair with intelligence? German psychologist William Stern coined the abbreviation “IQ” in 1912 (short for intelligence quotient – a scoring method he developed at the University of Breslau) in one of the earliest attempts to measure the abstract concept of intelligence. By the 1950’s, as the space race started, and when science proved essential to the development of atomic weapons and the winning of the second world war, being “smart” was decidedly a classification that had little to do with social norms but was highly prized.

The social sciences didn’t stop with the advent of “IQ.” For those of us whose careers revolve around human behavior and organizational dynamics, we know the subsequent “emotional intelligence” movement started a couple decades before Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book of the same name. In the mid 1970’s, in concert with the rapidly growing semi-conductor and computer industries, psychologist Howard Gardener proposed the idea that intelligence was more than a single ability having to do with a high-bit rate processing brain. His reasoning helped explain how many of the most successful people also deployed competencies that had more to do with influencing, persuading, and navigating the social dynamics of humans.

Goleman’s work popularized the idea of a new type of intelligence – dubbed Emotional Intelligence – to the point where most corporations today seek essential relational skills in the hiring process. Essentially, corporations began to ask, will this prospective employee play well with the people around them? Thus, IQ and EQ together were the twofold gold standard qualities for employees and employers.

Fast forward to 2022. Many futurists think that we’re transitioning from the Information Age – a period in human civilization ushered in by computers and the digital transformation of all aspects of life – to the much starker sounding Age of Reckoning: a collective moment when our species is realizing that more computing power, more information, faster speeds, and increasing technology alone won’t solve the problems we’ve created for ourselves. Said another way; the magnitude and scope of the problems we’re encountering cannot be conquered solely with IQ or EQ. The Age of Reckoning foreshadows the idea that, in our haste to grow, expand, conquer, discover, and create, we must simultaneously contend with the side-effects of either a singular focus or a carelessness of our surroundings. Poisoning the earth is no longer good for business. Unbridled stock returns don’t merit callous, unethical behavior. To quote the quintessential paragon of intellect, Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Taken to the extreme, it’s possible Einstein equally could have said that IQ and EQ alone are insufficient to meet the challenges ahead.

What are we to do? How does our species navigate in a way that doesn’t accelerate the doomsday clock?

It’s not all doom and gloom. Our firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, has the profound privilege of working with senior executives and individuals practicing leadership in powerfully effective ways. Many of these people understand that IQ and EQ are both essential and yet also insufficient to tackle complex, multi-scalar, and difficult problems – what we call adaptive problems. And it turns out that even someone with tremendous IQ and EQ in tow, who also possesses the often-lauded quality of persistence – or “grit” (highlighted by Angela Duckworth) – may not be sufficiently equipped to tackle wicked problems, even if the odds of success increase. Just because we persevere doesn’t mean we succeed in the end.

As we survey the individuals with whom we work who are navigating complexity and change successfully, a series of common behaviors begins to reveal themselves which collectively suggest that the deployment of a third horizon of human intelligence is upon us – beyond IQ and EQ and necessitated more by the age of reckoning we collectively face. Since we live in an increasingly complex world and are forced to confront change at a record pace, the mandate in the corporate world has been to seek “change ready” individuals – people who can 1) survive the first contact with stress, disruption, or ambiguity, 2) cultivate the learning mindset necessary to see in new ways and effectively understand the multitude of disparate perspectives and interpretations that have created the challenges we face, and then, 3) convert this insight into action that stimulates new approaches or learning in others.

We call this type of intelligence Adaptive Capacity, or AC – measured by AQ, or Adaptive Quotient. It’s an extension of the traditional definition of intelligence that denotes a comfort with discomfort – not purely a tolerance for pain, but the capacity to thrive in painful environments while developing new approaches and behaviors in an experimental way to create change. If IQ is largely about critical thinking and reasoning, and EQ is about understanding the emotions of self and others to navigate social contexts, then AQ is about generative responses to complexity, uncertainty, and rapid change.

In the context of evolutionary biology, this Adaptive Capacity happens across thousands of generations of a species when useful mutations propagate because they’re advantageous to survival. Think of successive generations of tadpoles which, over millions of years, escaped acidic water via genetic mutations that supported the metamorphosis to an amphibious, land-based state (the frog).

In the context of human behavior, the world increasingly demands from individuals and corporations the ability to adapt to change – iteratively and live-time, within the time horizon of a single generation or two. To those who possess high Adaptive Capacity (as measured by high AQ), complexity and disruption are par for the course, not an exception to the calm. Stability is over-rated. Stasis is devoid of progress.

The pain of thinking and behaving in this way is real because we’re deviating from the status quo, and it takes tremendous courage. It’s an intelligence that can be cultivated much like physical strength can be increased with consistent work at the gym and, like IQ prior to EQ, demands threshold levels of each tier of intelligence for success.

As I reflect more about the world my children will inherit, it occurs to me that my sensitivity to any criticisms leveled against their intelligence may be missing the point. A proactive parenting approach might instead be to seek to strengthen their adaptive capacity – help them endure, reflect, and productively engage with the constant change they’re encountering even now in a world beset by pandemic. It will take more than brain power or emotional savvy.

Throughout this blog, we plan to showcase stories, raise examples, share insights, and begin to highlight the multitude of ways a burgeoning Adaptive Capacity can be created and deployed – both on behalf of individuals and organizations – in pursuit of powerful outcomes. How does AQ differ from EQ and IQ? What sort of stage-appropriate behaviors give rise to successful outcomes?

We look forward to the exploration.