Your Brain at Work

Using neuroscience to improve daily life

Pilots and doctors are tested for competence. Why not leader

Pilots are tested before flying. Why not leaders too?

Want to work as a pilot, lawyer or doctor? You'll need to study hard for years and then pass a tough exam. It makes sense to make it hard to enter these professions - lives are at stake. Plus, the bodies of knowledge in these professions have been largely agreed upon, and there are ways to test for competence (in theory anyway.)

Want to be political leader? You might have to go to university, but there's no need to have studied the field of leadership. A ‘bachelors of whatever' will do. And there's certainly no exam to pass. Instead, the requirements for entry into politics are good looks, political connections and a whole lot of money. Can't hold a knife steady? You'll never make it into an operating theatre. Can't make a complex decision under pressure? No problem, have a tilt at leading a nation.

The trouble is, political decisions also put lives at stake, generally in massive numbers. So it makes good sense to put only the most able-bodied pilots at the helm of entire countries. Personally, I'd like my political leaders to be the equivalent of a pilot who can land a plane on the Hudson, not one who might overshoot an airport by an hour.

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Choosing leaders the media-circus way
With no barrier to entry, our top political leaders are currently chosen through a kind of ‘oral examination process', otherwise known as trial-by-media-circus. The election-year town hall meetings and televised debates are supposed to let the public gauge the relative character of candidates. This is not a bad thing on it's own: people are surprisingly accurate at judging character quickly. There's some new research which proposes that it's possible to judge someone else's character as well as they know themselves, in just a few minutes. Another controversial study showed that people's emotional, automatic reaction to a CEO's face was correlated with the profit that the CEO made. The trouble with debates and town hall events is that they only help ensure the better candidate wins. We could still end up with a competition between someone who often overshoots an airport and someone with no sense of direction at all.

A new science for leadership
All of this may be about to change. A new field is emerging which, if it develops as it might, could allow us to objectively test who we put in charge of our countries as thoroughly as we test doctors and pilots. The field is called NeuroLeadership. While we have long had the academic study of leadership, this has not yet led to an ability to objectively measure or predict who could be a good leader. Instead we have a plethora of leadership theories such as the ‘great man' theory (leaders are born not made), ‘trait theory' (leaders have certain qualities) and ‘transformational leadership theory' (leaders are able to inspire followers). I wrote more about this for the Harvard Business Review recently.

The NeuroLeadership field is taking things in a new direction. It is the study of the neuroscience involved in the functions of leadership. By being able to do physical experiments involving hard data, theories become more testable. This can lead to the capacity for accurate prediction, which is the really important bit.The pedagogy of this field was developed over three years of meetings between neuroscientists and leadership experts. The field explores the neuroscience underpinning four key abilities of leaders: The ability to solve problems and make decisions; the ability to regulate emotions; the ability to collaborate with others; and the ability to facilitate change. These four abilities appear to be the building blocks of what enables a leader to lead. It doesn't matter if you're a republican or democrat, the job of leadership is to make good decisions under pressure, be able to work well with others, and be able to get people to act on your decisions. You can read the deeper discussion about the history of the field and how it is organized in the opening paper of the first NeuroLeadership Journal.

This year marks the fifth annual gathering of neuroscientists and leadership experts to discuss the NeuroLeadership field. (In the interests of full disclosure, I do indeed help convene this event, though the institute running it puts all profits into research.) The event will be held in Boston, October 26-28 with researchers from Harvard, MIT, Columbia, NYU, Vanderbilt and Cambridge, amongst others. One of the presenters this year is Sandy Pentland from MIT. In a recent article in HBR, Pentland claims he can predict how well a leader will perform on a range of leadership tasks, based only on collecting data about use of their voice, body movements and other biological data. In other words, without hearing what the leader says. This capacity emerges from deeper understanding of how the brain functions, and how we all exhibit and read what Pentland calls ‘Honest Signals'. He is building on research published in strategy+business, where he could predict a call center operator's effectiveness, again without hearing what they say.

As the strategy+business paper says, ‘Most explanations of human behavior in the business world presume that people - be they employees, consumers, or executives - are influenced most by meaning and reasoning. It's what gets said that matters, not how it is said. But the performance of these telephone operators and a growing volume of other evidence suggest that this view is seriously flawed.' By rethinking our understanding of leadership interactions, and looking at them in the light of how our brains biologically react to one another, we begin to develop the capacity to assess and improve leadership skills, and therefore predict who will do well in the future.

There are other breakthroughs emerging from neuroscience research, including the ability to measure a leader's brain functions directly, and a deeper understand of what drives human social behaviors in the workplace, such as the SCARF model. Whether leaders can be born or made is still to be debated. Whether leadership is an art or a science is beginning to weigh more towards the science side. While there is still a huge amount to learn about the brain, we also seem to know enough that it would be wrong not to use this knowledge where it's helpful.

A more realistic outcome?
Now, for the bad news. While we may have the technology to assess our political leaders, I doubt this will happen anytime soon. However, perhaps we can start with improving the quality of our business leaders, something easier to enact. We have come a long way in understanding leadership in organizations, but it's still possible for ineffective people to be running our largest institutions. Business leaders are also responsible for life and death decisions. And with the right people in charge of our institutions we may not have experience the global financial crisis.

In leadership development, we already have feedback mechanisms and competency frameworks, which is a big improvement on the past. Yet we still lack a good theoretical framework that can accurately measure a leader and enable prediction. Getting to this point wont be easy, but enough is at stake that I think it is worth the effort. We all deserve to be led by people who are up to the task. It's time to use science to help us get there.

Additional links:
Introductory paper
on the organization of the NeuroLeadership field
2010 NeuroLeadership Summit
Neuroscience of leadership in HBR
Managing with the brain in mind

 

The 2013 NeuroLeadership Summit is going local with three days of events in three different locations. Click here for more information.

David Rock is executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, a global consulting firm.

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