Using neuroscience to learn how to build a better leader

In the past sixty years, advances in neuroscience have led to remarkable progress in the fight against disorders of the brain, from Alzheimer’s Disease to traumatic brain injury to addictions. Could the scientific discoveries of recent decades about how the brain works also be used to improve the functioning of healthy individuals? A team of researchers at the W. P. Carey School of Business information systems Professor Pierre Balthazard is trying to do just that. The investigators are using the tools of neuroscience, including brain imaging and neurofeedback, to identify leadership qualities in individuals and to discover ways to enhance those abilities. “We are looking at the positive psychology aspect of neuroscience,” said Pierre Balthazard, associate professor in the Department of Information Systems. “This is similar to what the clinicians and therapists have been doing but in a different direction. We take the God-given talent of an individual, and we actually tweak it or optimize it for certain functions.” Finding where leadership resides in the brain Balthazard and his colleagues at the business school have used electroencephalogram or EEG testing of brain electrical activity to measure leadership capabilities in individuals. In recent studies, the researchers have collected EEG data on approximately 350 senior executives from a variety of industries and endeavors. Data from the EEG testing was correlated with the results of a leadership questionnaire to identify patterns of activity in the brains of the individuals who are strong or inspirational leaders. The researchers now are developing exercises that should allow individuals to alter their brain activity to become more effective leaders. “The concept has been proven,” Balthazard said. “Now we have to go beyond the proof of concept into operationalization. Then, we will move into the delivery of products and services.” He said it could be a matter of months before researchers are ready to offer neuroscience-based leadership development, probably first in the laboratory and later as a product. A growing field gains acceptance The field of social cognitive neuroscience—which seeks to understand human interactions at the intersection of social, cognitive, and neural spheres of science—has been in existence for about a decade. The more specialized field of organizational neuroscience or leadership neuroscience, which the W. P. Carey School researchers are exploring, is almost brand new, even though “the techniques we are using are actually not new," Balthazard explained. "We are piggybacking on many of the interfaces that have been created through the development of quantitative EEG assessment and neurofeedback for clinical issues.” Organizational neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field, typically involving teams of researchers in specialized areas, including management science, neuroscience, organizational psychology, and information systems. While organizational neuroscience is unfamiliar to most people not involved in it directly, the field is gaining acceptance in academic circles. Top management journals have recently started publishing research in organizational neuroscience. Balthazard is co-editing a book on the topic for a major academic publisher. The US Department of Defense is funding the research on organizational neuroscience at the W. P. Carey School. Researchers at the business school involved in the field, in addition to Balthazard, include Management Professor David Waldman, Assistant Professor Suzanne Peterson, and Ty Crossley, a doctoral student in organizational behavior. There are researchers pursuing similar studies in Spain and China, and US military experts are also investigating the field’s potential for improving capabilities of personnel. “Our network is getting bigger all the time,” Balthazard said. Techniques of leadership neuroscience There are several ways scientists measure brain activity. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging or fMRI and EEG are the two main techniques. EEG technology records brain electrical activity with sensors attached the head and connected by wire to a computer. EEG testing can identify areas of the brain active at any given time. In the study of leadership, EEG is the most widely used because it is relatively inexpensive, portable, and non-invasive, and its use does not involve any health risk. EEG equipment is found in many places today, from hospitals to medical offices to clinics that treat various conditions, including attention deficit disorder. Investigators at the W. P. Carey School have used EEG techniques in their research and plan to use it in leadership development programs. fMRI testing is too costly and difficult for this application, according to Balthazard. “I would think that most CEOs who might want to improve their brains are not going to go to a hospital to use a three to six million dollar machine in a magnetic tube,” he said. A video game with no joystick Using neuroscience and EEG technology to develop the brain involves the process of neurofeedback, in which desirable behaviors are reinforced and new neural patterns are established in the brain to support those behaviors. Functioning much like biofeedback, neurofeedback is already being used to treat clinical conditions, including attention deficit disorder. “Neurofeedback is a way of getting your brain to adopt a different way of firing its neurons,” Balthazard said. According to Balthazard, the interfaces of neurofeedback systems work much like video games but without a joystick. Through brain activity alone, a person experiencing the procedure can learn to control images on a screen. Since researchers have identified the kinds of brain activity that correlate with leadership, exercises to promote that kind of brain activity should lead to better leadership capabilities, according to Balthazard. “I do believe there is a distinct population of leaders who will want to get into leadership development training using this type of machinery,” Balthazard said. A new approach developing better leaders The researchers at the W. P. Carey School view this approach as something that would supplement and not replace more traditional leadership development approaches. Leadership neuroscience could help leaders hone certain skills or improve in areas where they are weak. It might help them to concentrate better or become more skilled at communicating a vision. “To me, these are weaknesses that are not necessarily abnormal or clinical but are leadership characteristics that could be improved upon,” Balthazard said. “If individuals can improve these areas, then their leadership would certainly improve, and I would venture a guess that the organization as a whole would benefit.” While using neuroscience to improve leadership abilities may seem unorthodox, the now widely used practice of psychometric testing to assess personality was viewed in the same light when it was first introduced, Balthazard points out. And attempting to develop neural pathways in the human brain is really not new, he said. Researchers have found that meditation can produce clearly identifiable changes in the way the brain functions. In the US military, sharpshooters are taught how to control brain waves to become better shots. “What we do is just a more efficient and effective way of doing what the brain does naturally,” Balthazard said. “When you read a textbook, you are creating new neural pathways. What we’re doing does not change the person. We are making the brain more in tune with what it needs to be in order to learn a new thing more efficiently.” An ethical approach in a new field For some people unfamiliar with the field, organizational neuroscience prompts images of subjects attached to electrodes and scientists manipulating their brains. Balthazard said researchers are very much aware that the techniques they are developing must be used responsibly and ethically. “I fundamentally understand that there is a neuroethic component to this work,” Balthazard said. “The same techniques that we use to make things better, somebody else could use to make things worse in the same way that a surgeon can make you better but can also harm you.” A new field of neuroethics is developing contemporaneously to guide people who work in the areas of social cognitive neuroscience, Balthazard noted. Bottom Line:
  • Neuroscience has produced important advances in the treatment of brain disease and injury. Researchers at the W. P. Carey School and elsewhere are using the scientific study of the brain to promote better functioning of healthy individuals.
  • Organizational or leadership neuroscience seeks to identify brain activities associated with leadership capabilities. Researchers are discovering ways to use neurofeedback to help individuals develop new neural pathways and become better leaders.
  • Electroencephalogram or EEG is the most natural technique for leadership researchers to use in the field to measure brain activity. EEG is relatively inexpensive, non-invasive, and portable.
  • Neurofeedback works like a video game but without a joystick. Through brain activity alone, a person experiencing the procedure can learn to control images on a screen.
  • Organizational neuroscience is intended to supplement not replace conventional leadership approaches. The field of neuroethics is also emerging to develop standards to guide researchers in responsible use of these new techniques.
First published in knowIT, May 2011