We have a science of leadership, thanks to advances in brain scanning techniques. Leaders can now predict behaviour with their teams.

At last you can base your leadership practice on science…….

One of the problems with our understanding of leadership, and a good deal of management, practice is that it is mostly based on anecdotes, case studies of one, of instances where something worked but there was no evidence that it might work somewhere else. The airport bookshop shelves are filled with these flimsy recipes for success. The trouble is that humans are not that great at understanding fiction from science and are even prone to confuse the two. Let me explain.

Imagine that you are due to have brain surgery for some rather dangerous condition that is likely to shut down this most important of organs. You go to see a neurosurgeon. She tells you that there is a procedure that has gone through extensive scientific trials using control groups in many experiments. The procedure is 95% successful. However, she has just heard of an procedure that a surgeon has used in Iceland that is a good deal simpler and takes less time. The patient did well and she would like to try this out on you, to see how it works.

Now, unless you are strangely addicted to gambling with your life, I’m sure you’d choose the first option. That is science: the rigorous testing of a phenomenon so that we know it is a real effect rather than just a chance event.

I’m not sure why leadership should be any different. It involves practices that affect the lives and livelihoods of people. Poor leadership can have appalling effects on people and organisations and good leadership, the opposite.

At last we have a science of leadership. Thanks to brilliant advances in brain scanning techniques, it is now possible to not only more accurately map the brain but to also see what is happening in the brain when people think, feel and behave. In the last five years or so some of this research has focused on leadership and leadership related behaviours. These include what happens to people when they are treated well compared to badly, impressions and relationships, the myth of the carrot and stick approach (transactional leadership), how we respond to change and why we are so negative about it, the role of personality, how we make decisions, the emotional impact on thinking and decision-making, the myth of multi-tasking compared to focused effort, what happens when we are ‘overloaded’, team functioning, motivation and expectation.

Leaders can now predict what will happen if they behave in particular ways with their team. For example, if we behave positively with people and build relationships this will cause the recipients to secrete dopamine and oxytocin (among other chemicals) that create a sense of satisfaction, of reward. This translates into increased motivation and engagement, which we know (from the Gallup research) increases productivity and quality of work. If a leader is negative, over-controlling, and difficult then recipients secrete stress chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. Stress is an uncomfortable feeling and decreases motivation and effort: it does not increase effort as some ‘leaders’ (and parents) like to think.

Brain research has shown that the behavioural idea of reward and punishment is not as effective as first thought in motivating people. Rather, it is positive relationships that make the difference by accessing the reward systems that are described above. Some leaders will find this easier than others depending on their personality. This leads to the fairly obvious observation that certain personality attributes are more suited to effective leadership. But more about that in a future blog.

This new science of leadership will transform our organisations, assuming that leaders take any notice of it and realise the necessity of basing their practice on science rather than mythology.

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Dr. Stewart Chase

Dr. Stewart Chase

Consultant Psychologist



We have invited Dr Stewart Hase to be our guest blogger, to share his insights into Leadership, Neuroscience and Neuroleadership: “A Master Class on Neuroscience and Leadership”.


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