At Last, a Science of Leadership

in Leadership

Written by Dr Stewart Hase, PhD
Consultant Psychologist & ALA Partner

One of the problems with our understanding of leadership, and a good deal of management practices is that they are mostly based on anecdotes where something worked has no evidence that it might work somewhere else. The airport bookshop shelves are filled with these flimsy recipes for success. The trouble is that humans are not that great at understanding fiction from science and are even prone to confuse the two. Let me explain.

Imagine you are due to have brain surgery with a success rate of 95% but your neurosurgeon suggests a new surgical method, one that is simpler and takes lesser time. The surgical method has only been tested on one patient and since the patient is recovering well, your neurosurgeon would like to try the surgical method on you – to see how it works.

I am sure when the stakes are so high, you would base your decision on tested methods and proven results, on science and statistics, rather than betting on unfounded claims. Leadership should not be any different as it involves practices that affect the lives and livelihoods of people. Poor leadership can have appalling effects on people and organisations. Good leadership, the opposite.

At last, we have the science of leadership. Thanks to brilliant advances in brain scanning techniques, more accurate brain mapping is now possible and so is understanding what happens in the brain when we think, feel and behave a certain way.

In the last five years or so, researchers have been focusing on leadership and leadership related behaviours. Some of the research area include what happens to people when they are treated well compared to when they are treated badly, impressions and relationships, the myth of the carrot and stick approach (transactional leadership), how we respond to change and why we are so negative about it, the role of personality, how we make decisions, the emotional impact on thinking and decision-making, the myth of multitasking compared to focused effort, what happens when we are ‘overloaded’, team functioning, motivation and expectation.

Leaders can now predict what will happen if they behave in particular ways with their team. For example, if we project optimism and focus on building positive relationships with others, the level of dopamine and oxytocin (among other chemicals) in our body increases, contributing to the feeling of satisfaction. This translates into increased motivation and engagement, which we know (from the Gallup research) increases productivity and quality of work. If a leader is negative, over-controlling, and difficult to work with, stress chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol are released into the body. Stress is an uncomfortable feeling and decreases motivation and effort – it does not increase effort as some ‘leaders’ (and parents) like to think. 

Brain research has shown that the behavioural idea of reward and punishment is not as effective as first thought in motivating people. Rather, it is positive relationships that make the difference in accessing the reward systems described above. Some leaders will find this easier than others depending on their personality. This leads to the obvious observation that certain personality attributes are more suited to effective leadership.This new science of leadership will transform organisations when leaders realise the necessity of basing their practice on science rather than mythology.

‘We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change’

Mahatma Ghandi


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