Mapping the Mind of a Leader

Neuroscience could help business leaders retrain their brains to help them adopt more ethical leadership behaviors.

Mapping the Mind of a Leader

DO THE BRAINS of bad leaders have similar anatomical structures? And, if so, can individuals retrain—and thereby restructure—their brains so they can become better leaders? Neuroscience might have the answer, says David Waldman, a professor of management at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business in Tempe.

Waldman and three co-authors completed two studies to determine whether neurological markers might distinguish good leaders from bad ones. Waldman’s team included Danni Wang, assistant professor of management and global business at Rutgers Business School in Newark, New Jersey; Sean Hannah, professor of management and Tylee Wilson Chair of Business Ethics at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Pierre Balthazard, professor and dean of the College of Business Administration at California State University, Sacramento; and Brad Owens, associate professor of business ethics in the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

In one experiment, the team surveyed 104 participants, all leaders in business or the military, regarding their ethical beliefs. The team also surveyed their peers and subordinates to gather information on participants’ levels of ethical leadership. Then, each participant agreed to undergo a quantitative electroencephalogram, or qEEG, assessment. These scans measured the electrical activity in each participant’s brain—including the “intrinsic brain,” or brain at rest. The team found neural patterns in regions of the brain that were correlated with ethical leadership behavior.

In a second study that used similar methods on 56 leaders in business and the military, Waldman and his team identified a separate “brain signature” that predicted whether supervisors would be likely to display abusive behaviors toward peers or employees.

By using qEEG, the research team could overcome a central flaw of surveys—the fact that they rely on the truthfulness or accuracy of respondents. “If I take a direct assessment of your brain,” says Waldman, “you can’t lie.”

The ultimate goal of these studies is to develop an algorithm based on brain patterns to create a neurofeedback training program. Through neurofeedback, people could retrain their brains so they can change their behaviors. With this technique, participants watch a video while wearing EEG sensors linked to the computer training program. When their brain activity goes in a desired direction, the video’s picture and audio stay clear; when their brain activity strays from that direction, the picture blurs or the audio buzzes. Through this training, their intrinsic brain structure would be altered, which can positively affect behavior—for example, help prevent abusive impulses.

Neurofeedback already has been used to help people overcome cognitive issues such as attention deficit and anxiety disorders. Applying it to leadership development is new territory, Waldman says. He adds that it’s likely that, for people who willingly choose to use neurofeedback techniques, it might be easier to curtail abusive behavior than to become more ethical, because of the complexity involved in changing deeply held values.

“Abusiveness is largely about a lack of control on the part of some leaders, and that lack of control could be directly affected by neurofeedback processes,” says Waldman. “Billions of dollars are spent on traditional leadership development every year, sometimes with minimal outcomes. Why can’t techniques such as neurofeedback be put into the leadership development toolbox?”

The team will collect more data before creating any algorithm to be used for neurofeedback techniques. Business and military organizations have shown interest in Waldman’s work, which has been partially funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The first paper, “A Neurological and Ideological Perspective of Ethical Leadership,” was published online August 16, 2016, in the Academy of Management Journal. The second paper, “Psychological and Neurological Predictors of Abusive Supervision: The Tempering Effect of Political Skill,” is currently under revision for another journal.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October 2017 print issue. If you have comments or feedback on its contents, please contact us at bized.editors@aacsb.edu.