Do you already have the brain of a leader?

September 24th, 2010

I follow research that examines the effects positive energy has on the success of an individual or organization. I came across an online Harvard Business Review article titled Three Tips for Becoming an Energizer, written by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School professor and author of SuperCorp.

How interesting to read her expert conclusion that the uplifting effects of people’s positive energy can make them leaders regardless of their chosen field. In her words, “just plain energy” is an often-overlooked aspect of leadership. That’s always been my hypothesis.

The characteristics of an energizer as described by Kanter, reminded me of those identified by leadership researchers Fred Luthans at University of Nebraska’s Institute for Innovative Leadership (formerly the Global Leadership Institute), Carolyn M. Youssef, Bellevue University, and Bruce J. Avolio, Foster Center for Leadership at the University of Washington, in their book Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge.

According to the authors, psychological capital, or simply PsyCap, consists of four qualities – optimism, hope, confidence and resiliency – that are believed to play a key role in effective leadership.

These pioneers in work on positive organizational behavior formally defined optimism, hope, confidence and resiliency as qualities that can be measured, developed through training, and managed for improved performance. And their studies indicate that investing in the development of PsyCap as they present it can result in a very substantial return.

The PsyCap research led to what I call a breakthrough study at the Center for Responsible Leadership* (CRL) at Arizona State University, titled “Neuroscientific Implications of Psychological Capital: Are the Brains of Optimistic, Hopeful, Confident and Resilient Leaders Different?”** (You can download a PDF of the study’s complete technical report when you scroll down to the seventh title at this link.)

Researcher Suzanne Peterson, Ph.D., and her colleagues agreed that PsyCap was important to effective leadership. They, in turn, wanted to know why some leaders are hopeful, optimistic, confident, and resilient and others are not. They wondered if the brains of high PsyCap-performing leaders were different substantially from low PsyCap-performing leaders. And could they confirm that hope, optimism, confidence and resiliency could be increased or taught using fresh, original methods?

This is a heady piece that, no doubt, will get you thinking. It draws first on the ideas of positive psychology as established by widely respected American psychologist Martin Seligman: that the fields of psychology include studies of mental wellness. And it references a number of researchers who have looked to neuroscience to explain organizational behaviors. Among them is Richard J. Davidson, the world’s foremost neuroscientist and director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience as well as the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, both at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Davidson specializes in the study of positivity and how the brain handles emotions.

Of particular interest is Davidson’s suggestion that happiness is a skill that can be learned. Learned and developed just as one would learn to play a musical instrument or the game of tennis, with practice. Davidson says that due to the brain’s inherent plasticity (its ability to change), it’s possible to train a mind to be happy.

The CRL report aligns Davidson’s studies with beliefs by positive organizational behavior researchers that the PsyCap qualities of optimism, hope, confidence, and resilience are not only important to business success, but that they, too, can be learned.

Peterson and her team note that while the application of neuroscience to management and leadership is a somewhat new concept, it is gaining momentum as researchers dig deeper in their understanding of how the brain can influence character, personality and behavior.

Peterson and her colleagues describe their study as research focused on understanding the neurological basis of effective leadership and its correlates of optimism, hope, confidence and resiliency. And they state the research study was undertaken with their belief that neuroscientific technologies might help identify not only the origins of PsyCap, but the potential for groundbreaking ideas in its development. Now on to a summary of the measures that led to some pretty electrifying results.

To determine whether their study group of 55 senior business leaders and community leaders were high- or low-level PsyCap performers, the researchers first administered a self-assessment questionnaire. That was followed by the gathering of first-hand information on leadership style from several of the leaders’ followers. It was important for the researchers to know what types of leaders they were working with, because existing research had shown that transformational and visionary leaders are often thought to be optimistic, hopeful, confident and resilient.

They then took the leaders to a neuroscience lab that produced electroencephalographs (EEGs) for each, allowing the neuroscientist to collect real-time data showing changes in the brains of these leaders as they performed a variety of tasks. Visual-image brain maps were produced from the EEG data so the neuroscientist could compare the activity of one brain to the activity of another.

They were, indeed, able to detect differences in brain activity while the leaders completed a task designed to elicit the emotional responses aligned with PsyCap, one that asked them to create a vision for the future of their own organization. The report includes detailed data and neurometric profiles on the brain-pattern activity of leaders performing at high- vs. low-PsyCap levels. I’ll leave those for you to examine on your own.

Based on all comparative information, the CRL researchers concluded that, between high PsyCap leaders and their counterpart low PsyCap leaders, there was a very high level of consistency among all three measures used.

Because neuroscience maintains that how we think can be modified, the CRL researchers report a high increase in the use of EEG neurofeedback designed to retrain the brain so that it functions at optimal potential. They describe it as a form of exercise for the brain and note that it has been used effectively in the treatment of migraines, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And they say it can help with “peak performance” in the workplace by stimulating the brain to focus and be present in the moment with co-workers, customers, clients, etc.

Peterson and her colleagues believe that neuroscience has a place in leadership development, with a focus on enhancing PsyCap in leaders. Here’s an outline of their recommended steps:

1)    Assess PsyCap in leaders.

2)    Identify and address neurological barriers to PsyCap in leaders.

3)    Develop PsyCap.

a.     Combine neurofeedback with coaching.

b.     Keep the motivation climate high.

c.     Include meditation as part of employee wellness. (Richard Davidson’s studies of Buddhist monks at UW-Madison have concluded that meditation changes the brain to be more positive.)

d.     However you train for PsyCap, keep the training short and sweet.

e.     Cross-functional PsyCap training is best.

f.      Encourage innovation. (Neuroscience suggests that finding solutions or developing insight is an energizing experience.)

g.     Reward positivity.

The CRL white paper closes by acknowledging that, while more data are needed before any definite conclusions can be drawn, the study’s preliminary data suggest that the brain patterns of high PsyCap leaders do differ from those of low PsyCap leaders. And I think you’ll agree that’s a fairly significant finding.

The researchers also note that discussions of the brain as changeable and EEG neurofeedback could raise ethical issues relative to social engineering, and they affirm the need to monitor the types of assessment and development suggested in their paper.

Now here are the report’s closing statements that I found most powerful: “People don’t have to passively accept that they are unhappy with their role, whom they work with, or how they performed. They may have the power to control these emotions and thoughts at a deeper level than ever realized.”

That last sentence truly resonated with me. It is the driving-force idea that led to my development of Qinomics as a system for managing our energy – our thoughts, our emotions, our inner vitality – to achieve professional success, however we have defined it. And what I’ve come to believe through study, application and experience is that we do have the power to control our emotions and thoughts. Like learning a musical instrument, with practice, we can create both happiness and success.

In correspondence with Suzanne Peterson this week, I learned the team is doing a lot more work in the area of developing leadership qualities such as PsyCap. I’m going to remain optimistic and hopeful that their ideas focus perhaps a bit less on the use of electrode stimulation and more on uncovering the psychological tools we can use to better understand the meaning of our emotions and successfully direct our thoughts to align with the desirable, energizing qualities of PsyCap.

I promise to share the latest developments from this innovative team at Arizona State University as soon as I learn of them. In the meantime, my mind is set to reach for thoughts that feel good when I think them, focus on what I want to accomplish and take the appropriate, positive action.

*Recently the Center for Responsible Leadership was folded into ASU’s WP Carey School of Business.

**This was a Center for Responsible Leadership white paper (2/29/08) presented by Drs. Suzanne J. Peterson, David A. Waldman, and Pierre A Balthazard of the then-named Center for Responsible Leadership at Arizona State University, in conjunction with Dr. Robert Thatcher, Departments of Neurology and Radiology in the School of Medicine at University of South Florida, and assisted by Dr. Jeffrey Fannin at the Center for Cognitive Enhancement, Glendale, Ariz. It was published with enhancements under the same name in the October-December 2008 issue of Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 37, Issue 4. (This link provides you with an abstract, while the full article is available only by purchase.)

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9 Responses to “Do you already have the brain of a leader?”

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  8. […] in the face of change or adversity and spring back with renewed energy and confidence. The PsyCap quality named when describing highly effective leaders. The “state of mind” I championed on […]

  9. […] of effective leaders, according to leadership researchers and authors Fred Luthans and Bruce Avilio. (See Brain Food post dated 9/24/10) They describe it as one’s capacity to cope successfully in the face of significant change, […]