Is Neuroleadership More Than Reinventing Wheels?

The man was dining alone. He looked up from his menu and asked the waiter, “What’s the soup du jour?”

Beaming with pride, the young waiter answered, “Soup of the day!”

Something like that joke is playing out in the buzzy new field of “neuroleadership.”

Business Week, July 28, “The Business Brain in Close-Up,” introduces David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, who are using EEGs and MRI scans to “explain” how leaders think.

One cited example: ethical dilemmas get weighed in parts of the brain associated with early memories, suggesting that moral thinking is formed early in life. Now there’s a surprise!

(In a related story, just-convicted Conrad Black, at age 14, was expelled from a private school for stealing exams and selling them to students. Thanks to neuroscience, we’re able to divine a pattern).

Another insight: to change, focus on the to-be state, not the as-is. Are you listening, change managers? Got that, personal growth teachers? Or did you already get that from, say, Buddhism, or Gandhi?

Final insight: focus on a few key ideas, not on too many. Wow.

See, here’s the thing. In our opening joke, the waiter thought he was offering new information—an explanation—to the customer. Of course, he added absolutely nothing. So it often is when “science” gets hyped as an “explanation.”

Take Strategy + Business’s most-downloaded-article-of-2006—surprise, it’s Rock and Schwartz’s “The Neuroscience of Leadership.” A direct quote:

“Cognitive scientists are finding that people’s mental maps, their theories, expectations, and attitudes, play a more central role in human perception than was previously understood… This can be well demonstrated by the placebo effect… the mental expectation of pain relief accounts for the change in pain perception… Dr Price and Dr Schwartz are currently working to demonstrate that the Quantum Zeno Effect explains these findings. [italics mine]

Since the placebo effect was named back in 1955, the power of mind over matter was pretty well known by the Greeks milennia ago, and probably by witch doctors for longer than that—this doesn’t strike me as a news flash.

Back to the waiter and the soup. Drs. Price and Schwartz’s "explanation" does not explain.

A valid "explanation" is more than translation. It may add context, suggest a cause, offer an exegesis, or give a definition.

Telling me that emotional distress or ethical thinking is associated with particular brain wave patterns is the exact equivalent of "soup of the day." It replaces a useful, common-sensical emotional vocabulary with one based in chemicals. Nothing good or bad about that—but certainly nothing new.

For anyone who’s ever done management or leadership training, Rock and Schwartz do get one thing right. They say that change must come from within, and it comes only when one pays attention. Bingo on both counts. That raises the question—whence cometh attention?

Trainers know it means you’ve got to create compelling experiences.  But I’m not sure the neuroleadership crowd gets it.

Michael Rennie,  a McKinsey Organization Practice leader, apparently thinks this is leading edge stuff.  As he puts it in the BW article:

"When you start talking about things like behavior change and psychology, executives’ eyes glaze over. What helps them change their behavior is a cognitive frame."

I am honestly not clear here.  Does Rennie mean the new vocabulary of neuroleadership is itself a "cognitive frame?"

If so—trainers, back me up on this—the last thing that changes behavior is a cognitive frame. What changes behavior is an epiphany, a moment of insight, a recognition, a shock, a surprise.  A theory of epiphanies is not a substitute for ephipanies themselves.  Describing epiphanies in terms of neurons activities adds little to explanation, and even less to real change.

In my experience, Rennie is right in one respect—the more uptight and Type-A and left-brain the audience, the more likely they are to demand a cognitive model, and to claim that cognitively "understanding" the model equals change. They are deluding themselves.  (A colleague described one audience of lawyers: he was told by the client, "don’t try to engage them; just talk, they’ll decide what’s important.")

Leadership guru Warren Bennis, in the BW article, says neuroleadership has potential but is "filled with banalities."  I like his instincts.

What would actually make neuroscience interesting to leadership?  To get beyond mere translation, it would have to show us something new or interesting, beyond things like "focus more."  Here are some themes that would make me sit up and take note:

* a taxonomy of leadership "moments" of differing types, distinguishable by brain waves
* linking of specific leadership moments to parts of the brain that deal with poetry
* linking of specific leadership moments to other parts of the brain that deal with deductive logic
* linkage of selfish vs. altruistic behaviors to other aspects of cognition
* more detailed description of some general concepts like "self-awareness" or "self-actualization"

Until then, to paraphrase Kierkegaard:

It is like seeing a sign in the store that says Sale: you go in to buy, but find it is only the sign that is for sale.

12 replies
  1. Michael Arnoldus
    Michael Arnoldus says:

    I’ve come to realize that in ‘reality’ (whatever that means) there are very feel actual insights to be had. But there are an infinite number of ways to talk about these insights, to put them in a familiar context. It is possible to express the same truth in so many ways, and they all differ because they talk to different people – and, not to forget – at different stages of maturity and understanding.

    So in my experience, the truth is not in the words or the specific scientific explanation chosen. The truth is in the insight you personally gain from the words or the explanation. The words/explanation is simply ‘fingers pointing at the moon’ – they are not the moon itself. And obviously we might all need different fingers pointing, depending on our understanding of the world and our previous leve of insight.

    Having said that, I agree – “neuroleadership” seems like old wine in a new fancy botle!

  2. michael Arnoldus
    michael Arnoldus says:

    Ups – that’s “very few” not “very feel” – and “leve” -> “level” and “botle” -> “bottle”. Sorry 🙂

  3. Philip J. McGee
    Philip J. McGee says:

    The Hindi term "Neti Neti" meaning not that is the only way I can imagine defining terms like leadership, love or god.  Neuroleadership sounds like not leadership!  I can’t define or describe leadership but I know it when I see it.

  4. Stephanie West Allen
    Stephanie West Allen says:

    I added a link to this post at my blog on the post on “The Business Brain in Close-Up” but the TrackBack did not take for some reason. Sometimes that happens with TypePad. Anyway I found it worth reading and linking to. Thanks.

  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi Charlie. You write:

    "…the last thing that changes behavior is a cognitive frame. What changes behavior is an epiphany, a moment of insight, a recognition, a shock, a surprise.  A theory of epiphanies is not a substitute for ephipanies themselves.  Describing epiphanies in terms of neurons activities adds little to explanation, and even less to real change. "

    As a coach, I would take this one step further. The last thing that changes behavior is "capacity" – the mind-body connection that allows one to do and be in a consistent fashion, and capacity only comes with consistent practice (do-ing), even if it involves "thinking" which leads to integration and automaticity and a new way of be-ing and do-ing.

    What I experience is the inability of many to keep on keeping on with the practice . Cognition alone, intellect alone,(knowing the insight or having the aha) is not "doing". 

    The epiphanyis only as large as the tiny brain molecule that holds it…until one acts, and acts consistently, to effect true and real change. In my experience, most never get there; most stop at the "let’s talk about it" stage.

  6. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Peter, that’s very well said.  It’s an integrated thing–cognition united with action in a repeated manner. 

    Aristotle made a similar point about excellence–it is, he said, a habit. 

    Thanks for the articulation.

  7. David Rock
    David Rock says:

    I wrote a response to some of the comments about the Business Week article at leadership now. 

    In summary, the field is very much about developing new definitions and more accurate language for  important issue like attention, self-awareness, inhibition and other skills that are at the core of leadership.  It’s long been known that making implicit learning more explicit allows the learner to do more with what they know.  Thus the more we learn about the mechanics of issues such as how attention changes the brain, the more we can manage our attention, and this our own development.

  8. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Thanks David for stopping by, and for referencing your BusinessWeek response.  It makes for good reading, and I recommend it to TrustMatters regulars.

    In it, David makes a good point about the value of  sp0eaking to people, e.g. "rational" leaders, in their own voice.  I agree with that, though remain concerned that catering to business leaders’ preference for  "scientific" thinking encourages them to ignore a lot of parallel work in fields like philosophy or even the broad "wisdom" literature.  Husserl and Sartre offer great insights on consciousness; a great many successful businesspeople preach the gospel of attention.

    Whatever.  Let a thousand flowers bloom.  Thanks for planting some seeds here, David.

  9. David Rock
    David Rock says:

    Thanks for your comments Charlie,

    There is tremendous value in many domains within philosophy, systems theory, psychology, learning theory,  change theory and other fields (I am writing another book at present that ties all these together, showing there’s a thread through them all that can be explained by some physical phenomenon).  The reason the physical is helpful (not ‘best’, just helpful) is partly that the brain itself likes physical before conceptual – it’s a function of the small capacity of working memory.  It’s also that the physical can be explained quickly, surprisingly, which makes it easier to get the message across.  Anyway if people want to really get into the science a bit, see my blog, which has links to a bunch of audio files which go into all this more.  Enjoy.

  10. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Charlie wrote: "Telling me that emotional distress or ethical thinking is associated with particular brain wave patterns is the exact equivalent of "soup of the day.""

    Charlie, you nailed it with your choice of the word "associated" in the sentence above. has an article today entitled Don’t Believe the NeuroHype on the  hyping of neuroimaging technology by companies wanting to sell brain scans based on deceptive premises, that links to coverage in Wired, Salon, and Neurocritic blog.  The article is a tidy précis of the science vs hype behind "applied" neuroimaging.


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