Not all leaders – or all leaders’ brains – are created equal. New research suggests that effective leaders have brains that are “wired” to lead. Furthermore, the brains of adaptable leaders function differently from those of less adaptable leaders.

The study, which focused on 103 U.S. Army officers ranging in rank from officer cadet to major, linked adaptive leadership skills with brain functioning and psychological complexity measures among active leaders. Researchers say this fusion of neuroscience and leadership research could one day revolutionize how organizations assess and develop effective and adaptive leaders.

“Once we have confirmed how the brain works in these leaders, we can create an ‘expert’ profile,” said the study’s lead author, Sean Hannah, Ph.D., of Wake Forest University. “This profile can help us develop brain training methods to enhance brain functioning in leaders, such as the neurofeedback techniques that have been successfully used with elite athletes, concert musicians and financial traders.”

Psychological Complexity

The study participants went through a medical screening and completed a standardized survey to measure how complex a leader they saw themselves. In addition, half of the participants underwent a quantitative electroencephalography scan, which tracked activity in particular areas of the brain while the participant was at rest.

Officers were defined as being more psychologically complex if they had a more diverse sense of their own abilities and accomplishments as leaders. For example, complex leaders described themselves as filling more leadership roles – such as mentor, team leader and spokesperson – and possessing a diverse set of skills and attributes within these roles. Additionally, leaders who were more complex effectively worked their way through a challenging, four-part military leadership scenario.

Brain networks in the frontal and prefrontal lobes of the most complex and adaptable leaders – areas associated with self-regulation, decision-making and memory – were more complex and differentiated compared to those of leaders who were determined not to be very complex, according to neuroimaging.

The study, “The Psychological and Neurological Bases of Leader Self-Complexity and Effects on Adaptive Decision-Making,” was published online April 1 in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

This Is Your Brain on Leadership
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