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Neurotransmitters of Leadership

The interplay between neurotransmitters and leadership.

Key points

  • Neurotransmitters influence leadership attitudes, behaviors, personality traits, and emotional intelligence.
  • Paul Zak's work revealed a connection between oxytocin and trust in leadership.
  • Dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, oxytocin, and GABA are key neurotransmitters affecting leadership.

By Marlene Gonzalez, Justin James Kennedy, Ph.D., DProf., and Kerrie Alanen.

Ever pondered the enigmatic nature of leadership? The dynamics of leading a group can vary greatly from one individual to another. While several elements contribute to effective leadership, encompassing personality traits, emotional intelligence, and situational factors, emerging evidence suggests that neurotransmitters, the brain's chemical messengers, also wield influence.

Neurotransmitters, pivotal agents facilitating intercellular communication within the brain, exert an impact on an array of cognitive and emotional processes. This post delves deep into the interplay between neurotransmitters and leadership, unveiling the specific neurotransmitters involved in leadership attitudes and behaviors, and unraveling the implications of these findings on leadership efficacy.

Amidst the wealth of research exploring neurotransmitters and leadership, one luminary stands out: Dr. Paul Zak, a distinguished neuroeconomist and professor at Claremont Graduate University. Zak's groundbreaking work has unveiled the connection between oxytocin and trust in leadership, shedding light on the interrelation of various neurotransmitters with leadership behaviors.

Whether you are an experienced leader or aspire to become one, delving into the neurochemical underpinnings of leadership provides invaluable insights. Such knowledge empowers comprehension of strengths and weaknesses, and how to inspire and motivate others.

Now let’s explore the realms of leadership dynamics within neurobiology and how neurotransmitters influence your brain and decision-making processes.

Here's how the most common neurotransmitters affect leadership:

Dopamine: the universal “feel-good” neurotransmitter. One particular neurotransmitter stands at the forefront, linked to reward, motivation, and the experience of pleasure. Dopamine plays a pivotal role in goal-directed behavior and the relentless pursuit of rewards, which forms an indispensable component of effective leadership. Leaders who possess the ability to ignite inspiration and motivation within their followers may achieve this by skillfully engaging the dopamine reward system in their brains (Chapman, 2011).

Serotonin: the “moody” neurotransmitter. Chávez and colleagues' (2021) research has shown that low serotonin levels are associated with decreased prosocial behavior and increased aggression, while high levels are associated with increased prosocial behavior and social cohesion. These findings suggest that serotonin plays a crucial role in regulating mood and social behavior and may be necessary for effective leadership.

Furthermore, a study by Yöney, H. (2001) found that leaders who scored high on empathy had higher levels of serotonin activity in their brains, suggesting that serotonin may also be linked to essential leadership traits such as empathy and the ability to understand others' emotions.

Norepinephrine: a focus and stress agent. Norepinephrine is paramount in the body's stress response and is closely associated with attention, focus, and arousal. It orchestrates the fight-or-flight response, swiftly activated during high-pressure scenarios frequently encountered by leaders. Leaders who maintain a composed and focused demeanor amidst stressful situations effectively engage the norepinephrine system within their brains, leading to enhanced performance. A comprehensive book by Starcke & Brand, M. (2012) demonstrates a positive correlation between elevated norepinephrine levels and improved decision-making under stressful conditions. This highlights the significance of comprehending the role of norepinephrine in leadership, as it bears implications for leadership effectiveness.

Oxytocin: the trust and loving secret. Extensive research has illuminated the pivotal role of oxytocin in facilitating social bonding, nurturing attachment, and cultivating trust, empathy, and cooperation (Zak, Kurzban, & Matzner, 2004). Studies led by Zak have shed light on the profound impact of oxytocin levels. Elevated oxytocin levels have been linked to heightened trust and generosity in economic decision-making, and bolster team performance and productivity. In leadership, skillfully activating the oxytocin system fosters robust relationships with followers and engenders a spirit of unity and collaboration. With employees reporting all-time highs of burnout and stress, trusting relationships in teams is more important than ever. In a 2017 article in Harvard Business Review, Zak reported that leaders in high-trust workplaces feel safe to ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things, which his research found to stimulate oxytocin production in others, increasing their trust and cooperation. He also found that compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout.

GABA: your counselor in times of risk. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in the brain's inhibitory system. It acts as a natural tranquilizer, reducing anxiety and stress, and has been associated with decision-making and risk-taking behaviors. A study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that individuals with high GABA levels in the prefrontal cortex of the brain could better control their emotional responses and make rational decisions under pressure.

This suggests that leaders who can activate their GABA system may have an advantage in making strategic decisions in high-stress situations. Dr. Antoine Bechara, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, has also found that GABA is involved in decision-making and may play a role in regulating impulsive behavior. Thus, leaders who can make strategic decisions while keeping their impulses in check may activate their GABA system.

Jacob Lund /Shutterstock
Source: Jacob Lund /Shutterstock

A whole world inside each decision

While many factors contribute to effective leadership, the role of neurotransmitters must be addressed. They shape leadership behaviors and attitudes, through inspiring and motivating followers, building strong, trusting relationships, and making rational decisions under pressure.

While much more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between neurotransmitters and leadership, this emerging field offers exciting possibilities for improving our understanding of effective leadership and developing new strategies. Whether you are a leader yourself or simply interested in the science of leadership, it is clear that neurotransmitters play a crucial role in this complex and dynamic field.


Bechara, A., Damasio, H., Damasio, A. R., & Lee, G. P. (1999). Different contributions of the human amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex to decision-making. Journal of Neuroscience, 19(13), 5473-5481.

Chapman, H. M. (2011). Love: A biological, psychological and philosophical study. Senior honors projects, 254, 1-29.

Chávez, D. V., Salmivalli, C., Garandeau, C. F., Berger, C., & Kanacri, B. P. L. (2022). Bidirectional associations of prosocial behavior with peer acceptance and rejection in adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 51(12), 2355-2367.

Starcke, K., & Brand, M. (2012). Decision making under stress: a selective review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 36(4), 1228-1248.

Yöney, H. (2001). Emotional intelligence. Marmara Medical Journal, 14(1), 47-52.

Zak, P. J., Kurzban, R., & Matzner, W. T. (2004). The neurobiology of trust. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,1032(1), 224-227.

Zak, P. J. (2017). Harvard Business Review.

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