The Link Between Neuroscience and Leadership

The Link Between Neuroscience and Leadership

Good leadership is often difficult to define. In many ways, leadership is one of those vague, ambiguous terms that we constantly throw around without really taking the time to understand what it actually means. What makes a good leader? Why are leadership qualities so important? What is happening to our brains when we succeed in exercising these leadership qualifies? If you asked a thousand different people these questions, you’d probably receive a thousand different answers. 

While “good leadership” may be a vague and unquantifiable term, we instantly recognize it when we see it. For whatever reason, some people are born with traits that attract droves of loyal followers in an almost effortless fashion. These “natural leaders” are often some of the most influential people in history. Natural leaders have achieved incredible feats on the battlefield, in our political institutions, and in the boardrooms of our biggest corporations. Again, it’s difficult to define what makes these individuals such as effective leaders. In the end, we’re left waxing lyrical about their “magical qualities,” the “spark in their eye,” or a “certain je ne sais quoi.”  

Are these qualities really so difficult to pin down? Today, many neuroscientists and psychologists are making excellent progress as they try to establish what makes these natural leaders “tick.” After over a decade of research and scientific study, the pieces are finally starting to fall into place. The picture is becoming clear: there is a strong link between neuroscience and leadership. 

The Importance of Social Connections

In his recent book The Leader’s Brain, neuroscientist Michael L. Platt outlined the connection between neuroscience and leadership. He specifically examined some of the lessons business leaders can glean from advances in the neuroscientific study. One of the main points he sought to get across was the fact that humans are social animals. In our quest to define leadership, we should start with the foundational concept that it is a social quality. 

This means that if you want to become a good leader, you should root all of your efforts in what we already understand about social connections in humans. It’s the little things that count the most – the human interactions on a social level. This means eye contact, establishing a sense of cohesiveness and togetherness, and simple tricks to raise morale. These small details might bubble under the surface of our subconscious, but they’re vital to establishing a strong sense of leadership. 

The Value of Training Together

Micheal L. Platt also talked about something called physiological synchrony in his book. A great example of physiological synchrony is a rowing team. They must act as a cohesive unit as they time their strokes and develop a rhythm together. Incredibly, neuroscientists discovered that this cohesiveness wasn’t just limited to their heartrates or their breathing patterns. With EEG monitors attached to the heads of these athletes, Platt and his fellow researchers discovered that their brainwave activities were also synchronous. 

What this means is that if you want your team to act as a cohesive unit, it’s important that you train together and work together. In the era of Covid-19, this represents a major challenge for leaders around the world. If team members train and develop in their own bubbles, they won’t develop the same kind of synchronicity provided by close contact with each other. Platt stressed the importance of being able to see, touch, hear, and even smell your team members.  

Accepting the Reality of Human Emotion

Although many leaders like to view themselves as cold, calculating individuals who value logic more than anything else, this approach always results in fighting a losing battle against humanity’s true nature. Neuroscientific research has taught us that human emotion is an inescapably integral part of our thought processes in virtually every context. Unfortunately, many leaders have been trained to believe that the workplace is a highly formal environment and that everyone should leave their emotions at the door. Feelings only get in the way, as an outdated business philosophy has stressed so many times. 

Like it or not, leaders have to work with the brains they’ve been given. And right down to our genetic makeup, humans feel with virtually every firing neuron as they navigate their work environments. As it turns out, one of the most defining qualities of a good leader is their ability to care about the people around them. 

Why Past Leadership Trends Have Failed

One of the key lessons from recent advances in neuroscientific research is the value of simplicity. Research has shown that clear, concise messages are always more effective. Past leadership trends may have failed because they become too complex, and stray too far from the established social unit that we’re all genetically hardwired to accept. Why make things complicated with a million different apps when you can just have face-to-face meetings instead?

In a past edition of The Strategy and Leadership Journal, Dr. Robert Cooper of Stanford pointed out an interesting issue with past business leadership techniques. For the most part, they were based on principles used to train animals. Unfortunately, the “carrot and stick” method simply does not apply to humans. Obviously, the human mind is much more complex than that of even the most intelligent animals. 

Additionally, neuroscientific research has revealed that the human brain deals with threats and rewards in a very interesting way. In The Brain Revolution: Know and Train New Brain Habits, neuroscientist Evian Gordon points out that our brains have five times more neural networks for processing threats than rewards. In other words, the “carrot and the stick” is never a balanced approach for humans, because we are hardwired to use more brainpower to minimize danger compared to maximizing rewards. 


With the rapidly-advancing field of neuroscience, the concept of leadership isn’t quite as elusive as it used to be. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “natural leader,” you can still apply the lessons from neuroscientific research and achieve excellent results. When we value social connections, encourage mutual respect, and start treating each other like human beings, we can all reach for that next level of achievement. The best leaders today should strive to understand how our emotions and perceptions of threats apply to the typical workplace. 

On the one hand, these advances in neuroscience are groundbreaking. On the other hand, they highlight lessons that many of us already understand on a deep, subconscious level.