For many years, the science of leadership was considered a “soft” science. While many experts in management and business understood the qualities that made a good leader and knew the activities that could help leaders become even stronger, they didn’t immediately recognize the important link between the “hard” science of neurobiology and the “soft” science of leadership—and how one could be utilized to directly improve the other. Recently, experts in leadership and human behavior have realized the importance of understanding the brain in order to optimize leadership practices. Today, experts have dubbed this particular field NeuroLeadership—and researchers have dedicated themselves to taking what they know about neuroscience and using it to better understand how to lead. For the change management profession, what this research reveals is especially profound. NeuroLeadership has the potential to improve the change management process, since change leaders will be able to better understand what behaviors trigger negative reactions in the brain—and then how to avoid those reactions to make the organizational change process more positive and effective for everyone involved. The following are the first three of several articles that provide us with insights about leadership based on findings in neuroscience.

First Article (Academy of Management Perspectives, Briarcliff Manor, New York, USA)

Waldman, David A., Pierre A. Balthazard and Suzanne J. Peterson (2011). “Leadership and Neuroscience: Can We Revolutionize the Way That Inspirational Leaders Are Identified and Developed?” Academy of Management Perspectives 25.1: 60-74.

Second Article (UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA)

Schaufenbuel, Kimberly, (2014). The Neuroscience of Leadership: Practical Applications. Chapel Hill: UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Third Article (The NeuroLeadership Institute, New York, New York, USA)

Ringleb, Al H. and David Rock, (2008). “The Emerging Field of NeuroLeadership.” NeuroLeadership Journal 1: 1-17.

What Does This Mean for Practitioners?

Figuring out what makes a great leader has always been somewhat nebulous. While there are concrete personality traits and behaviors that are commonly linked with good leadership, figuring out exactly who is a good leader—and why they are one—has historically been an imprecise science. All three of these articles look at the new focus on understanding neuroscience—the study of the brain and nervous system—and how it can be linked with an understanding of human behavior in order to maximize the leadership capacity of individuals, in a variety of settings.

Waldman, Balthazard and Peterson specifically examined inspirational leadership. They questioned: what is it that specifically makes someone inspiring to a group of others, and is there a way to determine what physically happens in their brain to make them seem inspiring? Researchers saw a positive correlation between inspiring leaders and right-brain “coherence”—that is, people who communicated in a way that others found inspiring had parts of their right brain working and communicating well. People with right-brain coherence tended to use inclusive, group-based terms when talking about their vision for a company (for example, “our associates” and “we will operate” vs. “I am planning” and “my vision”). Thus, the researchers realized that there might be something to the idea that targeting and improving certain neural pathways can develop good leaders. They also discuss an important potential result of a better understanding of neuroscience: experts may develop more effective and precise ways to actually measure leadership potential, which could eventually help get the right people into positions of power (and avoid the appointment of the wrong ones).

At UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, the Program Director for UNC Executive Development Kimberly Schaufenbuel discussed the recent discoveries made about what positive and negative feedback do to a brain. Schaufenbuel explains that in all organizational situations—but particularly in times of change—leaders have the ability to use certain language and communication techniques to create a positive response in someone about a situation that could also trigger a negative response (for example, stress and anxiety). She also discusses the importance of trust and communication in spurring positive feelings in someone’s mind. To inspire trust in someone (which, in turn, produces a neurochemical called oxytocin in their brain—also relevant to childbirth) leaders can take proven actionable steps, like making people feel safe, demonstrating fairness, and trusting in others themselves. One final issue that Schaufenbuel discusses is the drawbacks of the modern workplace: open offices, constant emails, multiple mobile devices, etc. She suggests that neuroscience shows that humans lack the ability to multitask and, thus, office leaders may benefit from providing employees with better spaces in which to focus.

Finally, Ringleb and Rock, founder of The NeuroLeadership Institute, make clear the importance of understanding neuroscience’s role in a variety of key leadership characteristics. Like the other articles, this report makes plain the possibility that exists in using the knowledge of neuroscience to improve collaboration, influence, emotional regulation, change facilitation and more—and the even greater possible outcomes that could result from a scientific understanding of how to develop great leaders.

In terms of facilitating change, the researchers assert that leaders who understand how to help employees see change initiatives as opportunities—and not as threats—have a better chance of making those changes successful. They also note that NeuroLeadership can help leaders understand how to get people to change long-entrenched habits, which has proven to be a common challenge in most instances of institutional change.

It is evident that the field of NeuroLeadership is still in its infancy. Dr. David Rock first coined the term a little over a decade ago. For change management practitioners, there is a considerable amount of research to be explored and lessons to be learned from this burgeoning science. Change Management Review will be looking at more research on NeuroLeadership to ensure that we provide a robust store of foundational thinking and practical suggestions for change management professionals. What are your questions about NeuroLeadership and how it impacts change management work?