What’s different about the brain of a transformational or visionary leader? What are the neurological markers of more complex and adaptable leaders? Can the particular characteristics of leadership be defined and the brain mapped to show specific patterns? And if so, might we then be able to change our own brains through training to make them function more like those of outstanding leaders? Those are the questions behind an emerging niche of neuroscience research.

Our team is working to understand and harness the brain’s inherent plasticity to develop better leaders. The idea is to map the patterns and intensities of electrical activity across and within brain regions to see what stands out in effective and exemplary leaders and then to define neurofeedback training protocols to emulate these patterns in the brains of aspirant leaders. Last year, we published research in the Leadership Quarterly, that differentiated the brain patterns of leaders who are rated as being highly transformational (e.g., inspirational, visionary, charismatic, and leads each follower as unique individuals) by their followers from those leaders rated as less transformational.

The team focuses its research on the use of quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG). This is a field concerned with the numerical analysis of electroencephalography data. With qEEG, the digital data is statistically analyzed, sometimes comparing values with “normative” database reference values. The processed EEG is commonly converted into color maps of brain functioning called “brain maps”. This information can then be interpreted and used to evaluate brain function, and to track the changes in brain function.

Specifically, qEEG was used to develop and validate a way to classify individuals according to their transformational leadership behavior. Resting, eyes closed EEG was recorded from 19 scalp locations for 200 civilian and military leaders. In the study, the team also assessed follower or peer perceptions of transformational leadership through the use of the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ). The resulting discriminant analysis was 92.5 percent accurate in its classification of transformational leaders.

Many interesting features emanated from this analysis of the brains of leaders. For instance, qEEG variables involving pre-frontal and frontal lobes represented 40 percent of the variables in the analysis. This was followed by the temporal lobes (17.8 percent), central and parietal areas (15.5 percent each), and the occipital lobes (only 11.1 percent). In line with other studies, these findings point toward areas of the brain associated with “executive brain functions,” such as planning and foresight. The frontal areas have also been associated with the effective handling of emotions–one’s own and others. There is growing evidence that the frontal right region also helps us to understand novel situations. Further, the patterns in the frontal lobes may suggest that transformational leaders have a natural affinity to keep anxiety levels to a minimum. They tend to be able to control their emotions even in difficult situations. In addition, the right frontal region is largely responsible for adding meaning to verbal communication, such as irony, sarcasm, emphasis, accentuation and intonation. In sum, the neural regions identified in this study were in line with previous neuroscience studies, and their functions represent qualities reflective of transformational leaders.

We followed up that study with an article that appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It differentiated leaders who are more versus less psychologically and neurologically complex. We found that greater complexity predicted how adaptable leaders were when facing dynamic and ill-defined leadership challenges.

The researchers studied 103 leaders based largely at a military academy. They ranged in rank from officer cadet to major. The leaders were put through a psychological battery that assessed how complex and differentiated their self-identities as leaders were. The leaders pictured themselves leading a combat unit. They described what roles they saw themselves filling and what knowledge, skills and abilities they used across those roles. They then organized those attributes in order of importance. More psychologically complex officers described themselves using a more expansive set of leadership roles – such as mentor, team leader and spokesperson. They saw themselves as possessing more diverse and differentiated sets of skills, competencies, and attributes across those roles. Leaders with more complex identities are able to enact a more refined approach when facing leadership challenges, as they can draw from a richer array of personal attributes.

Participants also underwent a qEEG scan to track activity in particular areas of the brain. As theorized, the more complex leaders had greater complexity or differentiation in brain functioning in the alpha frequency of brain waves in the ventromedial-prefrontal cortex. This is particularly important for self-regulation. They showed the same in an area of the cortex which is involved in attention processes, choice, and processing novelty, and in another area which monitors and guides behavior. These regions drive perception, affect, self-knowledge, and self-regulation. They provide leaders with the requisite complexity to comprehend, adapt, and effectively engage with their followers and environment.

Each leader thus had a score for psychological complexity (the mind) as well as for neurological complexity (the brain). Next, each leader was put through a challenging four-part military leadership scenario where the participants led a unit to interact with hostile and non-hostile civilians, enemy forces, the media and, eventually, the shooting down of a U.S. helicopter during an international humanitarian relief mission in Africa. The scenario was developed to assess how well leaders adapt to fast-changing, ill-defined, and quickly deteriorating situations. Each leader was rated based on their adaptability, situational awareness and effectiveness of decisions. As expected, psychological complexity and neurological complexity both predicted how adaptive and effective leaders were in these scenarios. Results suggest that the level of complexity of the self serves as an important interface between leaders’ traits and behaviors and the deeper structures that drive their adaptive thoughts and behaviors.

The Default Mode Network and LORETA

One outcome of our work is that the electrical patterns associated with transformational leadership appear in areas consistent with a novel and only recently appreciated brain system defined as the ‘default mode’. The default mode network is made up of multiple, interconnected brain subsystems that activate when people engage in tasks such as daydreaming, envisioning the future, retrieving autobiographical memories, and conceiving the perspectives of others.

Today, there exists a powerful neuroimaging tool to measure activity in the default mode network. Low Resolution Electromagnetic Tomography Analysis (LORETA) translates the electrical information gathered from the skull surface into a precise three-dimensional representation of the source and characteristics of that electricity.

An example rendering of the default mode network in the right hemisphere appears in Figure 1 below. The nodes are center-points of the Brodmann areas included within the default mode network. The tubes represent functional connections between those nodes.

In our studies, the three-dimensional LORETA findings are consistent with our surface EEG power patterns. They show right temporal lobe and cingulate gyrus reduced metabolic energy, which indicates greater ability to allocate attention resources. This may give leaders greater flexibility and resources to allocate to leadership tasks. Elevated power in the left frontal regions indicates greater activity in support of executive functions, speech articulation, sequential planning, and short-term memory. LORETA coherence measures show greater brain complexity in high inspirational/visionary leaders in comparison to low inspirational/visionary leaders. Elevated EEG connectivity in the right temporal lobe indicates greater integration of resources involved in social skills and awareness of the environment. Clearly, transformational leaders seem to have “a more highly developed right hemisphere” and better-coordinated neuron firing among sub-regions in the right hemisphere. This suggests more efficient neural processing.

The greatest potential use of this work is in its application to algorithms for real-time ‘Z score’ neurofeedback. LORETA neurofeedback allows the selection of a single or multiple regions within the brain to work on. It provides real-time feedback to the aspirant leader. Through self-regulation, the brain of the individual learns to change the brain pattern. The goal is to replicate the metrics from an index representing an exemplary leader. The ‘Z score’ is a statistical measure of the distance an individual is from that reference value. An advantage of Z score neurofeedback is real-time adjustment in response to changes in the brain patterns as the brain progressively learns the target pattern. Using a 19-electrode system, LORETA neurofeedback can monitor activity in 2,394 locations in the brain simultaneously.

Ongoing research by the team is focusing on identifying the unique brain patterns occurring in leaders that are highly ethical, have reached higher levels of cognitive moral development, and possess greater moral potency. Moral potency includes moral courage, moral confidence, and a heightened sense of responsibility to act on their moral judgments. Leaders’ ability to positively influence followers stems not only from their competence and interpersonal skills, but also through the credibility and trustworthiness they establish as moral exemplars.