The neuroscience of leadership

November 27, 2012 | By | Add a Comment

When was the last time your computer froze, crashed or slowed to a snail’s pace?  Did you know that our brain reacts in a similar way when dealing with complexity, emotions and conflict?  And a recent Australian study found that traditional personality tests fail to detect this!  The computer analogy provides a simple way to explain how our brain reacts to complexity.

Processing speed and RAM jointly determine how quickly a computer can run software programs.  More of both mean several programs can run almost simultaneously.  Various brain regions (e.g., the prefrontal cortex) and neural networks determine our processing speed and short-term memory equivalents.  However, unlike a computer the processing speed and capacity of our brain – its ‘executive function’ – is largely fixed.  It’s not simply a case of upgrading our RAM to increase mental agility.

As we know, slower computers often freeze or crash when too many programs are running at once.  The same thing happens with our brain.  Difficult problems use up more executive capacity than easier ones.  This can overload the executive function and reduce our decision-making capabilities – particularly when experiencing strong emotional reactions (e.g., excitement, anxiety or anger).  This effect is amplified for those highly motivated to pursue attractive goals or avoid risk and uncertainty (a ‘reward’ or ‘threat motivation’, respectively).

Leaders with strong reward motivation, who react emotionally to set-backs or obstacles, make rash decisions and act impulsively.  This behaviour is more likely to occur when cognitive resources are low and when under pressure to solve ambiguous and complex problems (i.e., the typical demands of an executive-level role).  Under such conditions leaders typically ignore vital information, damage important relationships and generally fail to learn from their mistakes.  This explains why some leaders succeed while others fail under complex, ambiguous and challenging conditions.

Traditional personality tests fail to detect these four critical factors: executive capacity, reward motivation, emotional reactivity and impulsive behaviour.  This is because personality tests describe general tendencies to behave in certain ways (e.g., Sam tends to be impulsive).  Such tests don’t explain the interaction of these four factors and how they contribute to behaviour in specific situations – for example, how solving a complex problem under pressure might lead to impulsive behaviour and negative emotions.  Like the frozen computer, we can easily describe the symptoms – but are at a loss to explain the cause.

Understanding what causes leader behaviour allows us to explore a greater range of options for employment and development.  For example, a leader who reacts impulsively under pressure might be more effective in a less complex role.  This is equivalent to closing the unused programs so your computer runs faster.  Alternatively the same leader might work on developing greater self-regulation to better manage high reward-drive or emotional reactivity.

New research at the Australian School of Business is discovering how the brain impacts leadership effectiveness.  These new findings are influencing the practice of leadership selection and development.  To find out more please contact the author of this research on 1300 369 455 or by email at:

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