Neurofeedback: The future of leadership training

Picture this: Your boss hits the company wellness center to burn a few calories on the treadmill and then replaces his sweatbands with electrodes for a little brain rewiring to improve his leadership skills.

The image isn’t so far-fetched, according to Professor of Management David Waldman, who suggests the business world is on the cusp of using brain rewiring, or neurofeedback, as a routine part of leadership development.

Neurofeedback is a non-invasive tool that measures brain waves, or electrical activity, which is detected by electrodes placed on the scalp during a quantified electroencephalograph (qEEG) assessment. It is already commonly used as an adjunct therapy to treat the symptoms of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and sleep issues.

“It’s also been widely used for individuals who don’t suffer from emotional or cognitive issues but simply want to increase their focus and performance, like athletes and marksmen, to help them become better at what they do,” Waldman explains.

Think this way

The goal of neurofeedback is to retrain the brain to respond differently to encourage favorable brain activity through repetitive training. During a neurofeedback session, an individual is triggered by visual cues from a video game or movie. If the individual is motivated to cooperate with a computer trainer, the individual’s neuro-pathways will be reprogrammed to be more in line with a favorable pattern of behavior, such as positive forms of leadership.

“The brain is in charge and relatively plastic. It can be rewired and will go in the direction the computer trainer wants you to go. It’s essentially changing your intrinsic brain structure, or signature,” Waldman says.

Over the past decade, the professor has used neurofeedback to study the traits and behaviors of good and bad bosses, trying to understand what’s going on in their heads and why they think and act the way they do. For example, his research includes the discovery of a brain signature of people who are considered to be ethical leaders and a second study that “maps” electrical brain activity of those thought to be abusive.

In the past year, Waldman and his colleagues, Pierre Balthazard and Sean Hannah, have delved deeper into the brains of leaders at all levels and in diverse industries across the United States, using advanced software and collection techniques with qEEG to obtain more intensive data and identify brain patterns of effective and non-effective leaders.

“As compared to even five years ago, our data collection is much better and more accurate now. So is the software we are using,” Waldman explains. “In the past, qEEG only picked up the energy on the surface of the brain, but now we can pick up deeper activity because of the advances in technology.”

The results from his new research will be adapted for use in the real world, according to Waldman, who is working with potential industry partners to develop neurofeedback applications. “We’ve been able to gather more information to develop the necessary statistics. We’re just about there.

“Up until now, we’ve not attempted to directly target the electrical activity concerning what is going on in the brain of leaders,” says Waldman. “We essentially are looking at the brain at rest. What we found is the energy and patterns of brain activity differ between more vs. less-effective leaders. Based on that knowledge, through neurofeedback, we can redirect electrical energy to be in line with that of effective leaders.”

Rewired — and conditioned — for success

In addition to rerouting leaders’ energy to be more favorable, neurofeedback could positively affect cognition, emotions, and behaviors, changing the way leaders not only think but act. “That’s the end result,” Waldman says. “Cognition and emotions tend to get translated into behaviors. We are looking at all three, but the behavior is the bottom line.”

Neurological training is a critical part of what is missing in the area of leadership development, according to Waldman. “When an NFL player goes to football camp, he’s there to develop two things: to improve his physical ability to play his position and to learn to be a professional on a team. It’s the same for leadership, except when we have trained leaders in the past, we have totally forgotten about the conditioning part – specifically, brain conditioning,” he says.

While 360-degree feedback and executive coaching methods are common — and at least somewhat beneficial — Waldman believes approaches used to improve leadership outcomes and retrain brain functions such as “executive control” should be added to the current leader toolbox.

“Why can’t we use both? He envisions neurofeedback will become a regular agenda item for executive weekend retreats, and spaces for neurofeedback training will be set up in corporate wellness centers, too. Eventually it could be feasible to do this in the comfort of one’s own home as well,” he says.

Ready, set, lead

One benefit of neurofeedback training is it doesn’t shock the brain or use drugs to alter brain activity. “That’s one of the things we find appealing about neurofeedback. You change yourself.”

The knowledge gained through Waldman’s research also takes leadership training one step further than conventional methods with a more focused and expeditious approach to brain rewiring. “We fully recognize a person’s behavior is not developed just from brain activity but shaped by context and the environment, which is the goal of traditional leadership training. Yet it’s not the whole picture,” he says.

In Waldman’s view, nature doesn’t have to take its course before leaders can become more effective in business. “We can already correct mood disorders and anxiety issues that leaders might experience and help bring them into a homeostatic state — thus helping them to be better leaders. However, with neurofeedback, we may also prepare an individual more directly to learn leadership skills” he says.

“In other words, our research takes it one step further and is based on getting leaders’ brains more ready for peak shape, to be more transformational, politically savvy, visionary, or ethical, for example. Traditional leadership training doesn’t do that. Neurofeedback allows us to work on multiple aspects of brain rewiring and correct a person’s problems at the same time. It’s like having your cake and the icing, too.”

By Sally Clasen