Are Leaders “Wired” Differently?

By Rob Stott

A new study found that psychological and neurological complexities of the brain can contribute to a leader’s ability to adapt to changing environments and demands. That conclusion may reshape the future of leadership training.

What separates the Margaret Thatchers, Ronald Reagans, and other great leaders of the world from others?

According to a new study [PDF], published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Applied Psychology, these people may have been “wired” to lead. A team of researchers, working with a group of 103 volunteers recruited from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, were able to link adaptive leadership skills to the makeup of the brain, which could help improve leadership development across various industries.

Effective leaders are good at adapting to changes around them and modifying their decisions accordingly, and “cognitive complexity” makes these adaptations possible, according to the study. “Greater levels of complexity promote leaders’ ability to both differentiate the various sources of inputs and stimuli in the environment and to integrate those inputs with existing cognitive and affective structures to enable adaptive responses,” the authors wrote.

“We found that both psychological complexity and neurological complexity contributed independently to making a leader more adaptive in their situational awareness, decision making, and other aspects of leadership,” said Sean Hannah, Ph.D., a professor of management at Wake Forest University and lead author of the study. “We were successfully able to measure complexity and show that it matters more than simply the experience one has.”

The participants in the study ranged in rank from officer cadet to major. All completed a standardized survey to assess their own level of cognitive complexity. In addition, half went through a quantitative electroencephalography (qEEG) scan where researchers, using 19 electrodes placed on the participant’s head, were able to track brain activity while he or she completed the survey.

Participants with more experience showed a greater level of psychological and neurological complexity.

“That suggests that this complexity is something that is developed over time and plays into this role theory,” Hannah said. “A leader probably has a general conceptualization of what [their role] entails, but as they operate in that role over time they start developing much more specific sub-roles. These role associations can become rich and very complex over time.”

The next steps in the research are to refine the process used in the study and apply it across various industries. The researchers hope to begin to build an “expert profile, which means developing the brain signature of a highly complex leader,” Hannah said.

“This is going to help with leader assessments, selections, and development,” he said. “We have to collect a lot more data to really become comfortable with what that expert profile looks like, but once that’s developed we can start to put people through leader development training to improve their complexity through self-reflection and self-awareness exercises, so they can begin to understand the nuances of their leadership role and have a richer understanding of themselves as a leader.”

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