[blog] The Brains Behind Leadership

posted 2018/06/16



With Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress and a “dealmaker” in the Oval office, business leaders have recently occupied the attention of the American media. But what qualities link these two seemingly different CEOs? Studies suggest certain attributes can enhance or diminish a person’s leadership abilities; in fact, employees being groomed for executive positions will often undergo a leadership assessment, conducted by psychologists, to determine if they have what it takes.1 Now researchers have begun applying their own scientific tools to empirically test what characteristics can make or break a leader.

“We” Before “Me”

One of the most important qualities of a leader is an ability to motivate and inspire. While one individual can create a vision, it requires a dedicated team to turn that vision into a reality. Of the many varieties of leadership, transformational leadership is perhaps the most extensively studied.2 Transformational leaders lead by example with high performance and a charismatic attitude; this inspires followers to emulate their behaviour. These leaders are future-oriented and motivate others to work hard for the benefit of the entire team. They recognize the importance of empowering their employees and will often act as mentors to accelerate their success.2 Neurological studies using electroencephalography (EEG) indicate executive function is a determinant of transformational leadership; 3 and neuropsychological assessments conducted on mid-level and senior managers found control and decision-making abilities, in particular, were strong predictors of this form of leadership.2 While it may be a lofty goal to encompass all the formidable qualities of a transformational leader, specific aspects have been examined in closer detail.

Research suggests the inclusive attitude of transformational leaders is one of the most inspiring qualities of this form of management.4 Leaders can promote a “collective-oriented” message, which emphasizes the contribution of the followers in the success of the entire team. Barack Obama’s 2008 “Yes We Can” campaign is a perfect example of this form of messaging. Alternatively, there are “personal-oriented” statements, which highlight the leader’s talents and his/her role in achieving success.4  One example is Donald Trump’s 2016-campaign strategy where he boasted about his business acuity to demonstrate how he would successfully oversee the presidency. A study examining Australian elections showed collective-oriented messages were more predictive of electoral success than personal-oriented statements,5 perhaps making Trump’s win even more impressive.

Table 1: Presidential examples of different leadership styles

Barrack Obama Donald Trump
Collective- Oriented

“Yes we can.”


I make great deals.”

In-Group Leader

Shared African American identity

Out-Group Leader

Billionaire appealing to the middle-class


In an informative study, scientists applied functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain activity in response to both motivational themes.4 Participants supporting one of two prominent Australian political parties (Liberal vs. Labor) were presented with either collective-oriented or personal-oriented statements given by “in-group” or “out-group” leaders. In-group leaders refer to individuals who have a shared identity with their followers, while out-group leaders are considered outsiders who do not carry the same social identity as the individuals they lead. The researchers found brain responsiveness was determined by both the statement type (collective vs. personal), and by the perceived shared identity between the leader and the followers (in-group vs. out-group).4 Increased brain activity was observed when in-group leaders produced collective-oriented statements, but not personal-oriented statements. Conversely, for out-group leaders, personal-oriented statements produced greater activation compared to collective-oriented ones. These changes occurred in areas of the brain involved in the regulation of semantic information processing including, the  bilateral rostral inferior parietal lobule, the pars opercularis, and posterior midcingulate cortex.4  Cumulatively, these results suggest statements emphasizing the efforts of the collective group work best when coming from a leader considered as part of the team. Leaders seen as outsiders had more impact when focusing on their own abilities.  This could explain why Donald Trump, a perceived outsider, was able to lead a successful campaign on a personal-oriented platform. The findings expand our understanding of leadership paradigms and suggest the effectiveness of a motivational strategy is dependent on the leader’s relationship with his/her followers.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

While the research suggests a collective-oriented platform is most likely to drive inspiration in followers, this mental state may be hard to embody for some leaders. Recently, many popular media outlets reported on a study which showed that as individuals acquire more power, their ability to bond and relate to others may diminish.6 Before going into more detail, let’s add some scientific context.


Within our brains exists a unique subset of cells referred to as mirror neurons. These cells were first discovered in the 1980s by Italian scientists studying brain activity in monkeys. Using electrodes, the group found certain cells in a region of the brain called the premotor cortex fire when a monkey performs an action, such as reaching for a peanut.7 By complete accident, the researchers left the recording device on while they went for lunch and were shocked to find the same area was activated as the monkey watched one scientist eat an ice cream. These neurons were later found in humans, and we now understand mirror neurons fire both when an action is performed and when a similar action is observed.7 Scientists believe mirror neurons may play a role in empathy and relating to others; in fact, studies have implicated mirror neuron deficits with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Brain activity in children with high-functioning ASD was recorded through fMRI, and these participants exhibited reduced activation in brain regions associated with mirror neurons when compared to age-matched controls. Notably, the reduction in activation correlated with the degree of symptom severity.8

In relation to power dynamics, muting of mirror neuron activity has been proposed as an explanation for why individuals in positions of power struggle to relate to others. One factor that contributes to the success of high-power individuals is their ability to narrow focus and ignore peripheral information.6 While this may be beneficial for the pursuit of goals, persistent disregard for external cues could be detrimental to social acuity. One study showed mirror neuron responsiveness was diminished when participants were primed into a “high-power” state compared to those in a “low-power” state.6 These findings support the hypothesis that high-powered individuals have a reduced ability to process the actions of others, which could contribute to dysfunctional interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Naturally, when thinking about issues with empathy, another category of individuals comes to mind.

Psychopathy in Leadership


We’ve all heard the phrase that there is a higher rate of psychopaths in professional roles like CEOs, lawyers, and surgeons; and perhaps on a bad day your own boss has exhibited some less-than-empathetic qualities, but is there any actual basis to these remarks?

Psychopathy is a personality disorder encompassed by a variety of characteristics such as shallow affect, poor empathy, and lack of guilt or remorse.9 Psychopaths represent approximately 1% of the general population but are over-represented in prison populations.10 Corporate psychopathy is considered a subclinical form of psychopathy that occurs within an organizational setting.11 As clinicians expand the term “psychopathy” to reflect a spectrum of symptoms rather than a singular disorder, it stands to reason that individuals along this spectrum would fare differently across occupations. While a full-fledged psychopath may struggle in a corporate environment, due to elevated deviance and impulsivity, a corporate psychopath may survive and, in some cases, even flourish.10 This is unsurprising as certain qualities commonly associated with psychopathy are considered assets for leadership, including risk-seeking behaviours and lack of concern for consequences.10 While the exact numbers are hard to determine, studies indicate corporate psychopaths likely exist at higher rates in high-ranking positions than in the general population.12 Psychopathy in a business setting is associated with positive attributes, such as excellent presentation skills and strategic thinking, but it has also been linked to poorer management skills and employee well-being.11,12

Neuroimaging to Identify Future Leaders?

Clearly, leaders come in many forms, and a variety of factors determine the effectiveness of each leadership strategy. We still have much more to learn, especially with regards to the balance between empathy for subordinates and the drive to pursue goals. While current leadership assessments focus on quizzes and psychological assessments, perhaps as our understanding of the neuroscience behind leadership and inspiration expands, neuroimaging tools could be incorporated to provide additional layers of information. One might imagine a future where certain “brain signatures” will help identify strong leaders. Perhaps, neuroimaging will become an integral part of the interview process for rising management positions. For top companies, a poor hire at the top could lead to serious financial ramifications. Therefore, adding further quantitative, neurological measures would help board members feel confident they are handing their companies to capable hands.


  2. Ramchandran, K., et al. (2016). Exploring the neuropsychological antecedents of transformational leadership: the role of executive function. Adaptive Human Behaviour and Physiology. 2(4): 325-343.
  3. Balthazard, P.A., Waldman, D.A., Thatcher, R.W., and Hannah, S.T. (2012). Differentiating transformational and non-transformational leaders on the basis of neurological imaging. Leadership Quarterly. 23(2): 244-258.
  4. Molenberghs, P., et al. (2015). The neuroscience of inspirational leadership: the importance of collective-oriented language and shared group membership. Journal of Management. 43(7): 2168-2194.
  5. Steffens, N.K., and Haslam, S.A. (2013) Power through ‘us’: leaders’ use of we-referencing language predicts election victory. PLoS ONE 8(10): e77952.
  6. Hogeveen J., Obhi, S.S., and Inzlickt, M. (2014). Power changes how the brain responds to others. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 143 (2): 755-762.
  7. Rizzolatti, G., Fabbri-Destro, M., and Cattaneo, L. (2009). Mirror neurons and their clinical relevance. Nature Clinical Practice Neurology. 5: 24-34. doi:10.1038/ncpneuro0990
  8. Dapretto, M., et al. (2006). Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders. Nature Neuroscience. 9(1): 28-30. doi: 10.1038/nn1611
  9. Hare, R.D. (1996). Psychopathy: A clinical construct whose time has come. Criminal Justice and Behavior. 23(1): 25-54.
  10. Walker, B.R., and Jackson, C.J. (2017). Moral emotions and corporate psychopathy: a review. J Bus Ethics. 141(4): 797-810.
  11. Boddy, C.R. (2014). Corporate psychopaths, conflict, employee affective well-being and counterproductive work behaviour. J Bus Ethics. 121(1): 107-121.
  12. Babiak, P., Neumann, C.S., and Hare, R.D. (2010). Corporate psychopathy: talking the walk. Behav Sci Law. 28(2): 174-193. doi: 10.1002/bsl.925

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