The neuroscience of leadership

Thomas Maak, Professor in the Department of Human Resource Management in ESADE and Nicola Pless, Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences of ESADE

The blending of theories and methods from neuroscience with organizational research is a rapidly emerging field of study that has seen a surge of interest over the last decade. Methodological advances and neural imaging techniques have given us a more reliable picture of how our brain works, and we are developing new insights into the biological underpinnings of human behavior and cognition.

Overall, the impact of scientific and technological developements in neuroscience has inspired a whole new train of ‘brain research’. Through the interdisciplinary lens of social cognitive neuroscience, questions related to the social (motivational and social factors relevant to behavior and experience), cognitive (information processing), and neutral level (brain function) are linked and integrated, using traditional neuroscience methods and tools like neuroimagining and neuropsychology.

These recent advances in the field of neuroscience can significantly add to our understanding of leadership and its development. It may also add important insights to the study of responsible leadership.

As the world is recovering from the effect of a major economic crisis -and, in light of the collapse of and manipulative practices in some financial institutions- a crisis of management ethics, business leaders are under more scrutinity than ever before. The scandals of the past decade have raised concerns that some business leaders may be acting irresponsibly more often than previously thought. At the same time there is growing awareness that business leaders need to adopt a broader set of responsibilities to succeed in balancing the needs and demands of multiple stakeholders in an increasingly complex and connected world.

Yet, how do those who make responsible decisions master the challenges? How do leaders cope with the complexity around them? How do they engage stakeholders and create value for multiple constituencies -aligning economic, social, environmental, and increasingly, also political values (example, human rights)? Are there, perhaps, neurological differences between less responsible and more responsible leaders? In other words: are there neurological markers of responsible leadership?


Neuroscience research can inform our theoretical thinking on ethical or moral decision making, on issues of fairness, trust and altruism, on self-reflection, self-awareness and intuition, but also on how we perceive and interact with others (theory of mind, mirror neurons, empathy, etc), an area of particular relevance for leadership and leadership development. Leadership is a relational concept-building and sustaining relationships, and exercising influence in these relationships is what leadership is all about.

It is against this background that the ‘Neuroscience of Leadership Project’ at ESADE Business School in Barcelona seeks to investigate the neuroscientific dimensions of leadership -with particular emphasis on responsible, inspirational and team leadership. In May 2012, researchers from ESADE and Arizona State University conducted the first ever leadership and team-neurodynamics assessment study with 150 MBA students. This study builds on a project that began approximately seven years ago, initiated by Professors Pierre Balthazard and David Waldman, researchers at Arizona State University (ASU), to understand the neurological underpinnings of effective leadership processes. While its focus to date has been on the neurological assessment of individuals in formal leadership positions, there are now reasons to pursue an understanding of neuroscience in a team context. First, it is becoming increasingly clear that effective and responsible leadership may oftentimes be viewed as a shared or distributed process among individuals, rather than being the exclusive domain of particular individuals, such as those in formal leadership positions. This may be particularly true where ‘formal’ leaders interact with a broad range of stakeholders, that is to say, with NGOs, government, consumer advocates, communities, and so forth. Second, wireless technologies have evolved to the point of being able to scan the brains of a team of individuals in a synchronous manner while these individuals are engaged in a team problem-solving task. Thus, we are able to imagine the brains of entire decision-making teams, and then quantify collected data in terms of what has become known as quantified electroencephalogram or qEEG. For the purpose of this pioneering study the ESADE team used equipment provided by Advanced Brain Monitoring, Inc, based in Carlsbad, CA, that has developed the special qEEG hardware and software.

Specifically, the overall goal was to form an initial understanding of neurological phenomena associated with teams that are involved in decision-making tasks, especially leadership processes. We used real-life business dilemma on child labor, based on the case example of Levi-Strauss in Bangladesh and teams engaged in a thorough discussion on how to solve the dilemma, much like in a management board meeting. During the 45-minute team discussion, all students wore qEEG headsets.

The overall research design seeks to address the following questions: Are there identifiable neurological phenomena associated with teams that are able to perform especially well on decision-making tasks, including those that have implications for ethical or responsible leadership, such as the child labor case we employed? Are shared leadership processes associated with especially effective decision-making teams, and if so, can neurological markers be identified with regard to those processes? Can we define neurological patterns of group dynamics phenomena like groupthink or engagement? For example, can we identify neurological markers that indicate when a team is truly engaged in its task and on the same ‘wavelength’? Can the neurological markers and patterns suggested above add to our understanding and improvement of team processes, beyond what might be learned from more traditional assessment approaches (eg, external observation or surveys)?


While it is too early to present conclusive results, first data analysis shows that engagement of the individuals in the team is positively related to the team process and decisiveness. In other words, the more engaged team members are in the decision-making process, the higher the likelihood that leadership teams will make effective decisions. Our findings also indicate that leadership is correlated with the team process and moral reasoning. This means that leadership matters in regard to team interaction and the way a moral challenge or an ethical dilemma is approached and analyzed. In other words, leadership causes a specific form of team neurodynamics which in turn influences the outcome of the task at hand.

One may argue that these findings are not that surprising, as we would expect, or at least hope, for leaders to have an impact. Neuroscience may however help us to understand the actual effect on others and the neurodynamics involved, whether these are followers in the traditional sense or members of a management team.

A better understanding of these processes and neurological patterns may help leaders to make better decisions and thus lead to more effective and responsible outcomes. Moreover, in taking a closer look at those leaders who show the highest level of engagement and moral reasoning we may be able to identify specific neurological markers of responsible leadership. Current and future leaders could be trained and developed in line with our knowledge of specific neurological requirement for responsible leadership. This could be done in traditional ways through training programs, preferably challenging service-learning assignments which are attuned to the demands of leading in the 21st century, or the insights could further be used for the development of students and executives through neuro-feedback methodologies, or a combination thereof.

First and foremost, however, the ‘Neuroscience of Leadership Project’ aims at generating a thorough understanding of the potential neuropathways of responsible leadership -with the overall objective to help build a better, more inclusive world.


Article published in The Smart Manager (March-April 2013 Issue)

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