How neuroscience is improving leadership selection

August 8, 2013 | By | Add a Comment

Many leaders face problems that are becoming increasingly complex, dynamic and persistent1.  Organisations today are more globally connected and modern technology provides a flood of instant information 24/7.  Ironically, this abundance of information increases the emotional and mental strain in some leaders causing errors of judgment, destructive emotions and damaged relationships2.  Contemporary talent selection relies on traditional tests of personality and general ability (or intelligence).  However, neuroscientists have recently discovered three reasons why these tests fail to predict leadership success in such challenging environments.

First, the relationship between personality and leadership depends on the situation3.  The relationship changes as the demands of the role change.  For example, supportive and sympathetic leaders outperform during stable times but struggle under pressure4, 5.  Risk takers perform consistently when problems are clear but make more mistakes in ambiguous and complex situations.

Second, intelligence alone makes little difference.  The relationship between intelligence and leadership is small at best and again depends on the situation6.  General intelligence is related to success in technical or specialist roles but not in general management or executive level roles.

Third, most people tend to overstate their desirable job-related attributes when motivated to do so7.  This is more likely to happen in a selection situation where people ‘fake good’ by trying to appear less anxious, disorganised or impulsive.  Despite claims to the contrary, so called ‘lie detectors’ in personality tests do not identify this bias7.  Unfortunately, these undesirable behaviours remain hidden until, in the role, they face a challenging, complex and stressful problem.

Fortunately, emerging evidence from neuroscience explains how decision making, emotions and behaviour are adversely affected under these conditions.  This provides more accurate, reliable and efficient ways to predict how leaders will perform in challenging roles.  We now know that leaders fail in these situations when strong emotions rapidly exhaust working memory capacity8.  This often occurs without warning, is difficult to control and causes unforced errors and destructive leadership behaviours.

We have pioneered an evidence-based technique that identifies this tendency through doctoral research at the Australian School of Business, UNSW.  We have also helped identify and develop high potential leaders from supervisor to CEO levels across multiple industries and government since 2002.  Please contact Michael Collins on 1300 369 455 or to learn more about our capability and experience in this area.


  1. D. C. Hambrick, S. Finkelstein and A. C. Mooney, Academy of Management Review 30 (3), 472-491 (2005).
  2. E. K. Miller and J. D. Cohen, Annual Review of Neuroscience 24, 167-202 (2001).
  3. R. P. Tett and D. D. Burnett, Journal of Applied Psychology 88 (3), 500-517 (2003).
  4. D. S. DeRue, J. D. Nahrgang, N. Wellman and S. E. Humphrey, Personnel Psychology 64, 7-52 (2011).
  5. T. A. Judge and J. E. Bono, Journal of Applied Psychology 85 (5), 751-765 (2000).
  6. T. A. Judge, A. E. Colbert and R. Ilies, Journal of Applied Psychology 89 (3), 542-552 (2004).
  7. R. P. Tett and D. V. Simonet, Human Performance 24 (4), 302-321 (2011).
  8. D. G. MacCoon, J. F. Wallace and J. P. Newman, in Handbook of Self-Regulation Research, edited by R. F. Baumeister and K. D. Vohs (Guilford Press, New York, 2004), pp. 422-444.


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