Paul Jenny

Leadership by the Book

To Be[lieve] or Not to Be[lieve] Neuroscientific Leadership

When staff participation in a meeting is needed, blank stares around the table are unacceptable. In order for staff members to understand their ideas are vital, a leader must use a method relative to empathy, and that method involves neuroscience. Srinivasan S. Pillay’s Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders explores how increasing your understanding of how your employees’ brains work can aid in various leadership tasks and organizational pursuits.

Your Brain and Business discusses the neuroscientific leadership style as a process of letting employees know that you can share (as opposed to impose or demand) their emotions and build a fundamental business relationship based around trust.

If you could use the language of brain science to explain your decisions to your employees, your behavior would seem less personalized—perceived as more team- than self-oriented—and would therefore be more likely to produce results. Pillay argues that “if [a] leader provides a biological explanation for how unconscious fear and stress impacts thinking and productivity”, then your employees “may be more receptive to the follow-up interventions”. For instance, when dealing with an unexpected or unpopular organizational change, if you’re able to relate to what your employees may be experiencing psychologically, staff may feel less defensive about their reactions to the situation.

Building trust will serve to reduce fear and stress, as well as aid your effectiveness as a leader. As Pillay explains, building trust gives the brain the “ability to produce insight solutions.” Once you reach that pinnacle with yourself and your team, you will find that responsiveness around the conference table increases and your actions as a leader will be mirrored by other staff members.

While research into neuroscience is providing some useful new tools and insights for leaders, the explosion of popular interest in neuroscience has also caused a fair amount of questionable information to be shared in the mainstream media, as explored in the engaging new book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.

Over the past several years, there has been an increased interest in brain scanning, or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Micro-fields such as neuromarketing have spawned, and experiments have shown how the brain responds to everything from drinking Coca-Cola to watching political ads. Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic, refers to fMRI as “vanity scanning” and characterizes it as “21st century phrenology.”

In Brainwashed, authors Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld explain that “brain imaging tools hold enormous potential for elucidating the neural correlates of everyday decisions,” yet it’s important to show “healthy skepticism” for this type of neurological research. People may be drawn to colorful and visually intriguing brain scans, but when brain scan information is shown on television, posted on the Internet, or published in magazines, it can be misleading.

Although leaders can strive to understand how employees’ brains might work and how they think, even if you could get a snapshot of an employee’s brain activity during a particular task, it wouldn’t tell the whole story. Each person’s brain would have activity beyond and outside of the task or behavior at hand.

If you end up in another meeting with a group of unresponsive employees, your first impulse shouldn’t be to order fMRIs all around. Instead, consider how you can build trust, evoke an emotional response, and apply your knowledge of the brain to strategize for results. The wealth of neuroleadership and neuroscience books currently available may help you in this and other pursuits.

Further Reading

NeuroLeadership: A Journey Through the Brain for Business Leaders by Argang Ghadiri, Andreas Habermacher, and Theo Peters discusses how you can make your organization more brain-friendly and truly tap into the potential of your employees. This book provides clear organization and leadership applications.

The Leadership Catalyst: A New Paradigm for Helping Leadership Flourish in Organizations is Kevin Zachery’s Master of Science thesis and delves into not just neuroscience as it relates to the development of people, but cognitive psychology, ontology, and even quantum physics that can help a person run a more effective team. Here you’ll find a number of case studies to help you discover just what you can do to become a leadership catalyst.


Ghadiri, Argang, Andreas Habermacher, and Theo Peters. Neuroleadership: A Journey Through the Brain for Business Leaders. Verlag: Springer, 2012. Kindle edition.

Pillay, Srinivasan S. Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2011. Print.

Satel, Sally, and Scott O. Lilienfeld. Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. New York: Basic Books, 2013. Print.

Zachery, Kevin. The Leadership Catalyst: A New Paradigm for Helping Leadership Flourish in Organizations. Baltimore: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. Kindle edition.

Summer 2013 | Return to issue home