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Talent Management Column

Are Leaders Made or Born?

Are leaders born? Or can they be made? A new study that looks at the brain waves of various individuals seems to find evidence that charismatic leadership has a physical manifestation in the brain. But it may be possible to teach people how to change their brain activity in ways that may make them more inspirational to others.

Monday, April 25, 2011
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Do you get the sense that everything now is genetic?

Surely one of the last bastions of learned behavior is executive development. Over the generations, we have spent millions turning individuals into leaders at the military-service academies, at business schools and with corporate programs.

Despite the extensive practice of leadership development, we don't have a great sense as to how well this training actually works, and many critics have long suggested that leadership can't be taught. Some people are born leaders, they say, and others just aren't.

So here's a study, "Leadership and Neuroscience: Can We Revolutionize the Way That Inspirational Leaders Are Identified and Developed?," that appeared in the February issue of the Academy of Management Perspectives that gives some solace to both sides of the debate.

The study, by David A. Waldman, Pierre A. Balthazard and Suzanne J. Peterson, centers on the concept of coherence, which measures the extent to which different parts of the human brain communicate with each other.

The idea is that different parts of the brain are responsible for different types of behavior and responses as well as different types of cognition (remember the "left/right brain" arguments?). Brains that are better able to communicate across regions may also be better able to handle a range of responses and thinking, especially the complex process of understanding and conveying emotions.

The study used electroencephalographs -- those little electrodes on your head -- to measure the extent to which signals are moving across parts of the brain.

The authors found that greater movement, suggesting greater coherence, was associated with individuals who had visions of the future for their organizations that were more inclusive and collective; those with less coherence had more individualized or, one might say, more selfish visions.

And finally, those with more collective visions were seen as more inspirational and charismatic by their followers.

The idea that charismatic leadership has this physical manifestation in the brain is especially important because such leadership appears to be, at a minimum, one of the least teachable aspects of management.

So these results seem to support those who believe that some people have it and others don't.

But before we get carried away with the inevitability of biology, the authors of the study note that the same techniques of mapping brain signals have been used in other contexts to actually rewire the brain.

Neurofeedback is the process of helping an individual understand how his or her brain is firing in different ways and recognize the associated sensations so that one can learn to focus on particular patterns of firing.

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The idea is the same as with biofeedback, which helps people learn how to control their involuntary processes like heart rates.

There is some evidence that neurofeedback can change some brain functioning. It may be possible to teach people how to change their brain activity in ways that create more coherence across regions of the brain, possibly allowing us to process information and emotions in ways that make us more inspirational to others.

It's important to note that these results are just suggestive. We don't know with any certainty that the brain patterns observed are actually the cause of the leadership traits. And we don't know to what extent we will be able to change those brain patterns.

But we may have to get used to the idea of leadership-development programs that involve hooking participants up to monitors and having them watch video screens.

Since leadership-development programs are so often held in swanky places, maybe those video screens can be set up near the golf course. 

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School. His latest book, with Bill Novelli, is Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order.

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