Study: Effective Leaders' Brains Are Wired Differently

How efficiently the brain focuses its resources in the prefrontal cortex during task processing can help assess a person's leadership skills, according to new research from Wake Forest University.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychologyexplores "brain complexity" as it relates to effective leaders. 

When testing for activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, lead author Prof. Sean Hannah and colleagues found that certain areas correlated with more decisive, adaptive traits in leaders. The study took place on a U.S. Army base; 103 military leaders underwent psychological and neurological tests, including quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain.

Brain Complexity and Leadership

"Brain complexity is assessed through measuring which parts of the brain are 'firing' together at the same time and at the same level of electrical amplitude and frequency," Hannah, a retired U.S. Army colonel and the J. Tylee Wilson Chair of Business Ethics at Wake Forest University's Schools of Business, said in an interview with Healthline.

A low complex brain has more areas locked together at the same electrical amplitude and frequency—called "phase lock"—which means more of the brain's resources are tied up processing the same task. A high complex brain, however, shows fewer instances of phase lock and more differentiation in its activation patterns.

"More complex brains are more efficient in locking together only those brain resources needed to process a task, and then efficiently releasing them when no longer needed and then recruiting additional resources for the next task," Hannah said. 

If individuals' brains are focusing hard on processing one main task at a time, there's less time and energy to complete the varied requirements expected of leaders in military, organizational, medical, and government leadership positions.

Hannah calls this high brain complexity a "very differentiated brain landscape."

"We found this more differentiated activation pattern in the frontal and prefrontal lobes of those leaders who demonstrated greater adaptive thinking, decisiveness, and positive action orientation in our experiment," he said. 

Implications for Leaders

"This study represents a fusion of the leadership and neuroscience fields, and this fusion can revolutionize approaches to assessing and developing leaders," Hannah said.

While it's unlikely human resources departments will start screening applicants' brains before hiring them for high-stakes positions, the findings of the Wake Forest research also means that progress in leadership skills can be measured through brain activation and decreases in phase lock.

"These findings have important implications for identifying and developing leaders who can lead effectively in today's changing, dynamic, and often volatile organizational contexts," Hannah said.

"Neuroscience can take us into the heretofore neglected 'black box' of leadership," said study co-author Pierre Balthazard. 

More on Healthline