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.