Human Brain

The Science of Leadership

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

Sooner or later we will see a neuroscience-based profile of leadership. I don’t mean a list of words that are “attributes,” or someone’s list of “Top 10 Habits of Highly Successful Leaders.” What I’m envisioning is a neural map showing synaptic connections and particularly active parts of the leader’s brain. There will be detailed explanations of the connectivity, how one can encourage such connectivity and what kind of people will be inspired by this leader.

Feels a bit like science fiction, but from what I can see, we are getting really close to being able to do such things. How about a wearable device that measures our brain waves and lets us know how much of the day we spend in “leadership mode” versus how many hours are spent in “management mode”? I should think this would be useful information. And what will happen to the crush of “big data” we get from all the neuro-activity we gather? I suspect that even as we work to understand the “mundane things” such as shopping habits, we should all be recognizing that knowledge workers are not immune to the impressive power of the data we’re gathering — their jobs are also at risk.

But for now, what can we say about leadership to help piece together a practical approach to growing and developing our teams? One thing we know is that we have to have a team that is always thinking, not waiting to follow someone’s directions. We can’t see “how people think yet”, but we can see the results. So next steps have to be to build thinkers rather than followers.

To achieve that, we will have to start with the school system. It was designed to prepare people for the old industrial age where folks were expected to be on an “assembly line” and where it is imperative that they follow instructions, that they perform the same task repetitively. There is no time to think about what is being done. We want them to just do it.

Today, we have robots to do that. Our human resources must be creative thinkers. New approaches are needed for education. What we have to learn is quite different than what was required of us as little as 10 or 20 years ago. How do we analyze huge amounts of data? We won’t be memorizing specific actions to analyze data, instead we will be taught how to take what we want to discover and create a way to analyze data from multiple sources. We will be taught to be critical of the answers we and others give — to dig in and find out what assumptions and shortcuts were made.

I heard recently that Harvard received their biggest ever single donation. I understand it was $350 million given by a single donor to the School of Public Health. I hope they use this wisely because we don’t need them to develop well behaved followers. We have robots for that. We need thinkers. People who can analyze big data, discern trends, derive meaning and make decisions on actions.

As business leaders, we all need to be very active in helping our education system change. Science may help us understand more. And science may give us reason to worry about disruptive technology. But even if we only bring the science of how humans learn and change to our schools, that alone will take us in the right direction. It will give us a true leg up on the Science of Leadership development.