ATD Blog

Learning Leaders: Don’t Be Afraid of Intellectuals

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Every office has an intellectual. There are musicians, photographers, writers, debate champions, professors, mathematicians, people with minors or majors in psychology, and so forth. Even though they had a different educational background, now these folks are your instructional designers, developers, trainers, and learning managers. Indeed, workplace learning and performance (WLP) professionals often are transitioning from previous professions or academic backgrounds.

Assuming you are a manager, coordinator, or team leader, your first task is to uncover any talents of the people working for you. This is not an easy task. Many everyday roles require the application of intelligence to skills that may have a psychomotor component, such as art, architecture, engineering—the list goes on.

The main quality of the intellectual person is that the mental skills she demonstrates is not simply intelligent, but that she focuses on thinking about the abstract, as well as aspects of human inquiry and the value of her strategic thinking. Consider the quote from Frank Furedi: “Intellectuals are not defined according to the jobs they do, but by the manner in which they act, the way they see themselves, and the values that they uphold.”

To identify an intellectual requires more than looking at his resume. You will need to observe his language, behavior, and most important, emotional intelligence.

My typical conference presentation includes an explanation of the structure of my department and team and how we’ve adapted and supported the ASTD competence model effectively. During a presentation last year, some of the L&D leaders in the room joked that they could not duplicate what I do because not everyone on their team was particularly talented. My answer was that talent can be leveraged.

Great leaders should be able to maximize their team members’ strengths and address their weakness through continuous professional development and improvement. Even if you don’t have a dream team, it’s your job as manager to either work with the people you have to make them better, define their roles to match their strengths, or to manage them out of your team.

In an interview with some industry leaders, all of them agreed that they prefer to hire and work with people smarter than themselves. They believe that working with intellectuals would challenge them to do better and think harder or differently. At the end of the day, no matter how gifted or talented a person is, if their attitude is toxic, their contribution to the organization is greatly diminished—and probably not worth having them onboard.

Intellectual skills you can use

Here’s a breakdown of some subjects and expertise that can be maximized and used to enhance learning and development.




Examples of Output (Use)


Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the capability of writers or speakers that attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. Public relations, lobbying, law, marketing, professional and technical writing, and advertising are modern professions that employ rhetorical practitioners.

  • storyboard writers
  • interactivity designers
  • icebreakers designers
  • speech or presenter’s coach
  • editors (training materials always need a second pair of eyes during quality reviews)
  • on-the-job coaches


Neuro-linguistic is an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy. It studies connections between the neurological processes ("neuro"), language ("linguistic"), and behavioral patterns learned through experience (behavior).

  • trainers
  • facilitators
  • soft skill training designers
  • behavioral interviewer
  • motivational coaches


Geometry is a branch of mathematics concerned with questions of shape, size, relative position of figures, and the properties of space. Geometry is also a body of practical knowledge concerning lengths, areas, and volumes.

  • web-designers
  • web-based training (wbt) designers
  • graphic designers


Music is an art form whose medium is sound and silence. Music ranges from strictly organized compositions (and their recreation in performance), through improvisational music to aleatoric forms.

  • jingles
  • audio media
  • visual Media
  • WBT score
  • dame designer



The term grammar is often used by non-linguists with a very broad meaning. However, linguists use it in a much more specific sense. The term "grammar" also can be used to describe the rules that govern the linguistic behavior of a group of speakers.

  • editors
  • authors
  • participant’s guide writers
  • speech or presentation writers
  • policy and procedure writers


Logic has two meanings: first, it describes the use of valid reasoning in some activity; second, it names the normative study of reasoning or a branch thereof. The study of logic was part of the classical trivium (three subjects), which also included grammar and rhetoric.

  • learning strategist
  • root cause analysts
  • data analysts
  • evaluators


Psychology is an academic and applied discipline that involves the scientific study of mental functions and behaviors. Psychology has the immediate goal of understanding individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases, and by many accounts it ultimately aims to benefit society. Psychologists explore concepts such as perception, cognition, attention, emotion, phenomenology, motivation, brain functioning, personality, behavior, and interpersonal relationships.

  • human performance improvement (HPI) analysts
  • performance coaches
  • leadership coaches
  • learning audience analysts


Art is a diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities; this article focuses primarily on the visual arts, which includes the creation of images or objects in fields, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, and other visual media. Emotions, behavior, and feelings are also communicated through art.

  • graphic designers
  • visual media producers
  • brand designers
  • visual aid designers

Make your people visible

Ensuring adequate person-to-job fit is the first step in ensuring high performers are excited about their work. However, selecting the right person for the right position is only the first part of the equation. By leveraging your team member’s professional preference you will be able to lead them to high performance.

By definition, high performers have demonstrated adequate mastery of their position and may find themselves in search of newer challenges and greater responsibility if these needs are not met. Remember this can be part of your talent management tactics. Lack of person-to-job fit can result in disengagement and turnover.

Finding better people can be problematic. Recruiting, interviewing, and hiring a new member of your team can be timely and expensive—when compared to changes of support that enable more to be achieved from an existing team. Make sure you manage and maximize the talents of your current team. An individual who shines in one context may struggle in another. Even superstars can be deficient in certain areas. The best pathway is to maximize strengths and professionally develop and improve weaknesses. Notice your team members, use them, and make them feel valuable.


  • McLuhan, Marshall (2006). The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time (first publication of McLuhan's 1942 doctoral dissertation); Gingko Press. ISBN 1-58423-067-3.
  • Robinson, Martin. Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons From the Past. London: Independent Thinking Press, 2013. ISBN 978-178135054-6.
  • Sayers, Dorothy L., essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning", presented at Oxford, 1947.
  • Winterer, Caroline. The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780–1910.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
About the Author


Bruno Neal is a scholar and a learning and development authority. He has written dozens of articles on learning and development, two Infoline issues on Informal Learning and Quality in Learning and Development, and one TD at Work™ on Learning and Development in Healthcare. He is a Certified Professional of Learning and Performance (CPLP), and currently works as an L&D leader for Indiana University Health. He has been appointed to the 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 Board of Examiners for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, a judge of the 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 Association for Talent Development (ATD) BEST Award, and Chair of the award committee since 2014. 

Neal was awarded with the highly esteemed American Society of Training & Development BEST Award in 2009, and part of the team awarded with the same achievement in 2011. He also was awarded with the Champion of Learning Award Certification for his contribution to learning and professional development in 2011. In 2015, Neal received the Global Training & Development Leadership Award at the World Training & Development Congress in Mumbai (India) for his contributions to the international learning and development community.

Neal also serves as contributor for ATD’s T+D Magazine. In addition, he has spoken at ATD International Conference & Exposition, local chapters of ATD across the United States, Cancer Treatment of America, Training Magazine conference, the Training and Education chapter of the National Association of Electric Distributors (NAED), Medical Users Software Exchange (MUSE), and ATD’s Learn from the BEST conferences.

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