NeuroLeadership? I Don’t Think So


If you read this blog regularly, you know I am a big fan of neuroscience and where it will lead us in the future. So naturally you would think that this Businessweek article on NeuroLeadership is something I would be glad to see. But the truth is that this is a dangerous area.

And now, thanks to an aspiring coaching guru, we have "neuroleadership." The catchy term was coined last year by David Rock, a leadership consultant who has been importing notions from neuroscience to help explain managerial behavior. Rock is just one of a small but growing group of people connecting the two fields. Business school professors at Arizona State University and Emory University are working with neuroscientists to use electroencephalograph (EEG) machines and fMRIs to study the brain waves or images of executives rather than those of traditional undergraduates. And in May, Rock helped organize a NeuroLeadership Summit in Asolo, Italy, where scientists mingled with executives from companies such as fashion house Hugo Boss and agribusiness giant Cargill. Participants ponied up $3,500 to attend the summit, which was held at CIMBA, an MBA program that has made the neuroscience of leadership core to its curriculum.

Ok, I'm glad to see someone incorporating neuroscience into an MBA program, but brain science is easily subject to misinterpretation, and leadership itself is something people tend to reify.

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If you look at popular leadership blogs, very few of them treat leadership as a simple here-is-what-you-do kind of thing. It's complex, and I don't believe there is one style or one answer. Leadership varies as much as leaders, teams, and situations vary. My concern with neuroleadership is that we scan Jack Welch and then judge people based on how their brain scans compare to his, which ignores the fact that the interpretation of brain scans is still a young science, and that leadership isn't a one size fits all thing.

Neuroscience is a tool for understanding how and why people think about certain things in certain ways. In that sense, it can be very useful in all fields of business. But it's a long long way from the ability to be used as a screening tool or to provide any kind of roadmap for what leader brains should look like.

Brain Based Business has written more about this.

  • We are constantly searching for magic, the incantation, spell, or three-step process that will produce results without the trouble to develop mastery. Calling it “science” doesn’t make it any less magical thinking. Using bits and pieces gleaned from studies and journals does not make it any less magical.

    Magical thinking about how “leaders think” can be especially dangerous because all leadership is situational. Bob Nardelli was one of the best operational leaders ever at GE, but a failure in many ways at Home Depot. Scan Nardelli’s brain in those two places and you’d probably get pretty much the same thing. The Bob Nardelli brain that produced magical results in one place produced something quite different in another.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful post on incorporating neuroscience into MBA programs, and also for the link. You really triggered some refreshing ideas on the topic — and I’d like to pose yet another small angle to your great discussion on a keen topic.

    While I agree with your concerns here and especially agree with the fact that we are a long way off from finding roadmaps for what leader’s brains should look like, I also grow concerned that what we do know is so little included in university learning circles.

    Except for the jargon which leaves lay folks behind, and the foppery that misinterprets brain based benefits, the topic of the brain rarely comes up. That seems a pity – when there are so many new facts that would add higher motivation and achievement for MBA students.

    I teach courses such as leadership and organizational management — in MBA programs, and find my students are highly engaged in brain based benefits for leaders.

    Guess what I am saying is that I so agree with you about the caution we should use, and at the same time let’s take a risk to roll out what we do know about the human brain as it could benefit business leaders. Would you agree.

  • kari

    I think This Is a perfect match at the end, our brain is what controls perception, sensation, emotions, cognition and behaviour… so if we kneew it a bt better we’d also understand better why we act and feel in certain ways and how to control this in our benefit.