The Neuroscience of Leadership

Leaders and leadership scholars of the future may be looking at the world in a whole new way -- with the brain firmly in mind. And the journey has really only just begun.
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With the 2012 elections just months away, people are now, more than ever before, thinking about leadership. What works? What doesn't work? What should we look for in leaders and how do we know if one is going to be more successful than another? Sometimes the choice is simple -- if a presidential candidate can't remember an answer to a basic question under pressure, then they may not be the best person to lead a nation -- but other times, it can be quite difficult.

Neuroscience research is beginning to help fill in the gaps. While we are nowhere near being able to scan a leader's brain while running a meeting (even if that was a good idea), we can study some of the building blocks of what leaders do -- making decisions under pressure, solving complex problems, negotiating a transaction or trying to persuade others. There have been some big surprises in the research. Here are just a few.

The "aha" need not be so elusive
Studies of insight by Mark Beeman and others have provided clues as to how we might increase the likelihood of that "aha" moment when we solve a complex problem. One big take-away: You get better insights when you're able to notice "weak activations," or "quiet" signals in the brain. Noticing a weak signal requires that you quiet the overall activation of the brain, which requires minimizing anxiety (which is why we have better ideas when we feel happy), and reducing general neural activity. No wonder the brainstorming session is usually so ineffective. Rethinking our understanding of how we solve complex problems could save thousands of hours wasted in dead-end meetings.

Rethink emotional regulation
We've long known that stress affects performance. Studies by Matt Lieberman show that the brain has just one main "braking system," sitting behind the left and right temple, which is used for all types of braking -- mental, physical and emotional. The bad news is this system has limited capacity and tires remarkably easily with use. The good news is this system appears to be quite trainable, which explains why many leadership programs involve people "surviving" strong emotional events: Emotional (but safe) events give people a chance to build their braking system.

When the brain's braking system is activated, emotions become less intense. This is a good thing, as strong emotions reduce the processing power needed for deliberate thinking -- and inhibit insights too. Studies show that the braking system is activated when one labels an emotion in simple words. The trouble is, people prefer not to talk about emotions, and suppress them instead. However, other studies show that suppressing an emotional expression backfires, making the emotion more intense, affecting memory and creating a threat response in others. In short, our intuitive strategies for regulating emotions (not talking about them) do exactly the opposite of what we intend, leaving us less capable of dealing with the world adaptively. Leaders, who deal with intense emotions all day, could do well to develop techniques that truly keep them cool under pressure.

Social issues are primary
Before neuroscience research, social pain -- like feeling put-down in front of others or treated unfairly -- was just something to "get over." Research by Naomi Eisenberger has shown that the brain treats social pain much like physical pain. One study showed that Tylenol reduced social pain more than a placebo. Social rewards, too, are often treated like physical rewards in the brain: Giving positive feedback or treating someone fairly can activate reward centers the same or more than financial windfalls.

There appear to be five social rewards and threats that are deeply important to the brain: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. This explains why giving feedback is hard: People experience feedback as an attack on their "status," which to the brain is perceived like a physical attack. Attacks are always met with some kind of defensive strategy. This model explains a tremendous number of the conflicts, misunderstandings and tensions of everyday organizational life, and points to ways of reducing these.

We're not as rational as we thought
Studies by Alexander Pentland show that people are dramatically more influenced by non-verbal signals than we realized. The biological signals exhibited by leaders are highly efficient messengers. This realization has enabled Pentland to measure the effectiveness of leaders without knowing what they say, and even predict a leader's success at certain tasks, the "holy grail" of leadership.

The future
I believe that neuroscience research will be a significant factor in reshaping how we define leadership, select leaders and design leadership development programs. Already there is a journal focused on the neuroscience of leadership, post-graduate education, and an annual summit about this field.

Leaders and leadership scholars of the future may be looking at the world in a whole new way -- with the brain firmly in mind. And the journey has really only just begun.

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