Most Intelligent Leaders in History: Brilliance That Shaped the World


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Intelligence is often not the leading trait that makes a leader great. Nonetheless, intellectual genius shined through in world leaders from ancient times. Imhotep, a high official in Ancient Egypt, was later worshiped as a god of medicine. King Solomon is famous for his wisdom. Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher emperor in Rome’s golden age. Charlemagne in France brought light to the Dark Ages. Churchill mixed intelligence with oratory and humor. John Quincy Adams was the most intelligent United States president.  

Ancient Times 

Imhotep (2592–2566 BCE) was a vizier (high official), sage, architect, astrologer, and chief minister to an early Egyptian pharaoh. He was later worshiped as a god of medicine in Egypt and Greece. A reigning genius of his time, Imhotep remains high on the smarty list.

King Solomon (970 to 931 BCE) is famous for his wisdom. He was the son of David, the greatest leader of Ancient Israel. The Queen of Sheba matched wits with him. 

Cleopatra was the last Egyptian pharaoh, reigning from 51-30 BCE. She is famous for her beauty and personal magnetism. She was also extremely intelligent, including being fluent in many languages. Cleopatra studied chemistry, economics, and military strategy.

Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher and Roman emperor (161-180). He symbolizes Pax Romana, the Golden Age of Ancient Rome. His Meditations is one of the best books of all time. Marcus was both a fighting and cerebral emperor. His death turned out to be the end of Pax Romana. 

Middle Years  

The Church became the best place to become educated as the Roman Empire declined. Augustine (354-420) was a convert to Christianity. He was a scholar whose writings continue to influence religious thought today. He became a bishop and was significant in church and state.

Charlemagne (747-814) was the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The “king of the Franks” (French) was a great military leader. His intelligence and curiosity helped promote a renaissance that shined through the Dark Ages. 

Thomas Wolsey was a 16th-century English cardinal and statesman estimated to have an IQ of 200. He was Henry VIII’s lord chancellor (senior legal official). Wolsey opposed Henry’s attempt to obtain an annulment. He died after being arrested for treason.  

Modern Times 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is repeatedly put on the top of the list of the most intelligent people in world history. Goethe was a German writer, scientist, and statesman. Duke Karl August of Weimar welcomed him as a friend and administrator. Goethe held many advisory and administrative roles in government. He was an important Enlightenment figure. 

Sir Winston Churchill is remembered for his oratory and wit. His leadership helped Great Britain defeat the Nazis during World War II. Churchill was an accomplished historian and journalist. He was one of the most intelligent and influential 20th Century politicians.  

Angela Markel was the first woman chancellor of Germany (2005-21) and the second longest serving. She was trained as a quantum chemist and spent over three decades as a researcher. Markel grew up in East Germany and later became a powerful leader of the united Germany

U.S. Presidents 

Forty-five people were presidents of the United States. One person served two separate terms. We have had a diverse range of presidents, including some very intelligent. 

John Quincy Adams, the Harvard graduate who was the son of President Adams, was the most intelligent. He was fluent in seven languages. Adams was “Old Man Eloquent” because of his rhetorical skills. He served in multiple diplomatic and political offices

Thomas Jefferson was no slouch. He sold his library to Congress after its library burnt down during the War of 1812. He knew multiple languages, was a scientist, and inventor. Jefferson deeply believed in the importance of education, establishing the University of Virginia. 

Woodrow Wilson studied history, law, and philosophy. He was the only U.S. president who earned a Ph.D. He was a professor at both men’s and women’s colleges. Wilson became the president of Princeton University before becoming president of the United States.  

Bill Clinton fulfilled the American dream: he rose from a fractured childhood to become president of the United States. He went to Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale. Clinton’s intelligence and fascination with a range of subjects is well known. His judgment was more questionable.  

How Useful Is Intelligence? 

Successful leaders tend to have above average intelligence. Nonetheless, they are often not the smartest people in the room. Brains will be more useful for scientists than political leaders. 

A good military and political leader has certain types of intelligence. Still, high marks at West Point, the military academy, did not guarantee success. They often succeed because of their leadership ability. Napoleon knew how to organize and inspire.

John Quincy Adams was a polymath who knew how to speak multiple languages at a young age. Andrew Jackson had a more successful presidency. Adams did have a pretty good career!

Intelligence is useful. Nonetheless, successful leaders can lack some in the brains department.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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