Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Brain Mapping and Leadership

Pierre Balthazard, a professor at the Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, claims to have indentified parts of the brain that enable someone to be a good leader. This claim furthers the debate about whether leaders are born or made. Balthazard uses EEGs (electroencephalography) to produce a ‘brain map’ of his subjects. By looking at the brain map, he claims he can predict a person’s capacity for certain traits linked to leadership.

Balthazard is currently working with the US Military to develop a model that will allow them to scan soldier’s brain for complexity. This will allow the military to determine the complexity of that soldier’s brain; the more complex a brain, the better situational awareness and adaptive thinking the person has. Balthazard refers to traits like brain complexity and transformational leadership as precursors to leadership itself. This would seem to indicate that Balthazard believes leaders are born, and the complexity of brains, as seen via brain maps, show who will be a good leader. Balthazard does not take into account differing situations.

While Balthazard is excited by the possibility of determining leadership from brain scans, he is more excited about the possibility of brain training and improving leadership skills. This would make it seem that Balthazard believes leadership can be made through adequate training of the brain. Balthazard believes that brains can be trained using positive and negative reinforcement. This would be possible because a subject would be wired to a software program to recognize the correct functioning of a specific part of the brain and if the brain is not performing correctly, there is negative feedback.

However, others are more skeptical of Balthazard’s research. Others believe that it is difficult to develop something such as leadership. Dr. Bob Kentridge, a researcher at Durham University in England, thinks that even if you find differences in brains of people who have different leadership abilities, it’s hard to say that the difference in brains in attributable only to leadership and not a variety of other factors. It also does not take into account differing forms of leadership in different situations.

The ideas of whether a leader can be born or made are found within this article. Balthazard developing the idea of brain mapping and relating level of brain complexity to leadership ability would lead one down the road to believe that leaders are born. But his idea of training the brain to become a better leader contradicts that thought and leads one to believe leaders are made. Is this taking trait theory one step farther by mapping the brain and attributing certain traits to the complexity of the brain and the level of effective leadership? Is the idea of a person being born a leader or made into a leader further complicated due to this research?


  1. Haha, I'm going to be rather blunt here: I think training the brain to be a leader is a little bit preposterous. Primarily because it makes an assumption that puts the focus on leadership as something self-contained or internal. I am more in favor, generally, of a situation or external forces defining a leader, as opposed to a leader defining a situation.

  2. Although I don't know the extent to which the human brain can or cannot be taught leadership using Balthazard's experiments, I don't think the leadership trait of genuine empathy can be trained by positive and negative reinforcement experiments. When I think of empathy as sensitivity to followers' needs and emotions that creates an emotional bond between the leader and follower, then I struggle with the notion that this can be trained by anything other than life experiences (Choi 2006). Many of us learned how to be more or less empathetic toward people based on our own experiences, which could be viewed as learning through the positive and negative reinforcement we received from each situation. However, the point is that it takes time to develop this leadership trait of genuine empathy and I think there are some people out there that could never truly apply genuine empathy because of their personality or character. Choi also says that this type of empathy creates a 'oneness' between the leader and follower, but do all leaders want that type of relationship? (Choi 2006). Most of us can probably discern between a genuine empathetic leader and a leader who practices empathy simple because s/he knows, as Geneen states, that the leader is constantly being watched and evaluated. I think it's great the Balthazard is performing this type of experimentation, but I consider empathy as an important leadership trait that may not be trainable to the degree that it becomes a genuine trait and not simply a leadership tactic.

  3. I think the author's of early leadership theories would be amazed at how far the argument has come today to reach brain mapping and brain training in relation to leadership. I guess I don't understand the science behind how in training your brain you would be able to translate that into different leadership situations. However, on a smaller scale it is related to today's reading of "Leadership That Gets Results" in which they discuss increasing your emotional intelligence to help increase your leadership effectiveness. Through some training I believe leaders can increase their effectiveness whether or not that means in drastic ways, I would have to be convinced.

  4. Jamie,you have brought to our notice a very interesting research...I agree with Alanna that developing the trait of empathy through brain training seems to be a far-fetched idea and since it is such an important quality in being a successful leader, I have doubts whether brain training can develop all leadership traits. However, in my work in the educational neuroscience lab at Vanderbilt we have discussed how brain structure and functions impact reading and math ability and how in turn instruction in reading and math may lead to changes in brain structure and functions.
    Similarly, is it possible that leaders' experience with complex situations in their work actually leads to changes in their brains? If it is so then some leadership traits may be developed through formal brain training by making a person respond to aritificially-created complex situations.
    It would be interesting to follow Balthazard's research and see what he finds out.

  5. Shilpa S. is on the right track, I think. The brain can change with the right training. This is now well established. The question is how quickly and whether we yet have the right exercises.

    In brain scans of Tibetan monks, years of meditation have been shown to change brain structure so that focusing on compassion engages far more of the brain than in a regular non-trained brain. In a more immediate demonstration, scientists last year recorded an increase in fluid intelligence after just 19 days of intensive working memory training.



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