august 2013

THOUGHTS ON LEADERSHIP. We understand leadership in many ways: as a function of personality, as behaviors in which we engage, as the ability to influence and persuade others, as our style, and our ability to adapt to the situation, as charisma, credibility, and the ability to inspire and motivate. All serve to explain some aspect of leadership and contribute something to our overall understanding.

Now, there comes an opportunity to know much more. The flourishing field of neuroscience may blow the lid off our understanding of not only how leadership works, but why.


Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system and the brain. In 2011, John R. Ryan, president of the Center for Creative Leadership, wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek that the rapidly expanding field of neuroscience had hit the mainstream, and people were moving quickly to turn insights from neuroscience into practical workplace applications.


I have often found myself wishing that I could know what was going on inside someone’s head. Perhaps that’s why I find the promise of neurorscience, and its application to the study of leadership, fascinating. I am not alone. Increasingly, leadership scholars are talking about how rapidly improving knowledge of neuroscience offers potential to improve leadership effectiveness in organizations.

Our ability to lead, and our willingness to follow, depends on our capacity to form relationships in which we can influence one another. Few people would disagree that a person aspiring to lead must understand human behavior, both the behavior of others as well as their own. We have been trying to fully understand leadership for a long time, and we have made lots of progress. However, because big gaps remain in our understanding of human behavior, similar gaps exist in our understanding of how leadership works and why.

We are only now beginning to understand the part neurobiology plays in much of human behavior. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that neurobiology affects our leadership capacity. If recent research results are any indication, the more we know about the human brain and nervous system, the better we can understand how people influence one another and each other’s motivations. Over the last few years, neuroscientists have studied decision-making under stress, persuasion, problem-solving, mindfulness and self-regulation, among other human and organizational behaviors that most students of leadership would agree prove essential to effective leadership.

A recent study appearing in the journal Leadership Quarterly provides an effective example. Richard Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead School of Management, and colleagues from Case Western as well as the Cleveland Clinic, used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of executives as they answered questions about their experiences with both what Boyatzis and his colleagues called “resonant leaders” as well as with “dissonant leaders.” A resonant leader is one with whom our interactions produce a positive emotional tone and interpersonal alignment. Conversely, we would call leaders, with whom our interactions produce a negative emotional tone and interpersonal strain, “dissonant.” The results of this study illustrated the possibilities of research like this.

Using fMRI, Boyatzis and his colleagues observed which portions of people’s brains either activated or deactivated as the study participants responded to questions about their prior experi- ences with either resonant or dissonant leaders. Recalling notable interactions with resonant leaders activated neural networks in participants’ brains that neuroscientists associate with being open to new ideas and new emotions, as well as the ability to scan one’s environment.

When participants recalled similar interaction with dissonant leaders, those same neural networks deactivated significantly while areas of the brain known for focused attention lit up. One can imagine many implications to this finding, but I was particularly interested in the idea that positive leaders facilitated their constituents’ engagement with their working environment. Knowing how one’s leadership approach either contributed or detracted from a constituent’s mindfulness and situational awareness could prove enormously valuable for fire service leaders.

Boyatzis and his colleagues also suggested that interactions with resonant leaders might put people in a frame of mind in which they could build relationships, think creatively, remain open and engage. Perhaps more importantly, these research findings suggest that people would feel themselves drawn to a resonant leader.

Conversely, the study found that contact with dissonant leaders pushed people to avoid additional interaction with such leaders and to disengage. The implications of these results seem pretty clear. A person attempting to lead will struggle to influence, persuade, inspire or otherwise motivate people, absent the opportunity to engage them.

No student of leadership is surprised that dissonant leaders arouse indifferent behavior in their constituents. Nor are we surprised that resonant leaders tend to arouse inspiration and motivation to use one’s talent, adapt to the operating environment and innovate. Thanks to prior leadership research, we have known these things for 30 years. What is exciting is the potential to understand why, particularly the possibility that our reactions to attempted leadership may, essentially, be hardwired – a function of our neurobiology.

Neuroscience is a young and emerging field, and its application to the study of leadership even newer. We should not immediately dash out thinking that we know how your brain “looks on leadership,” so to speak. I am sure that like any new scientific discipline, there will be false starts and dead ends. However, researchers are exploring ideas with direct relationship to our interest in leadership development, high reliability organizing (HRO), situational awareness, emotional intelligence, nonverbal communication and criti- cal incident stress. I find that incredibly exciting and believe that the blossoming field of neuroscience has the potential to dramatically improve our understanding of leadership in the next few years.