Leaders come in all shapes and sizes. There’s the nose-to-the-numbers executive and the emotionally invested chief; the closed-door CEO and the boss who starts impromptu Friday dance parties by blasting Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” A lot of leadership style comes from company culture, each leader’s experience and who’s being led. But did you know that it’s also connected to neurology?
I talked with Richard Boyatzis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio, who has done extensive research into the psychology of leadership. His research has uncovered evidence that leadership style is actually hard-wired into our brains, which means you might be wasting your time trying to persuade the workhorse in the corner office to lighten up.
Whenever a group of people get together, two types of leaders emerge. The first is a taskmaster who organizes everything, solves problems and keeps people on track. In an unhealthy extreme, they’re the ones who see employees as assets to complete tasks rather than as human beings who need to eat, sleep and breathe in order to function. Think of the boss in Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” who only appears on the television screen to tell his employees to get back to work.He’s impersonal and disconnected, but the work gets done efficiently — at least until the Little Tramp gets involved.
“In business that (type of leader) had become synonymous with the myth of a top executive,” Boyatzis said. “I say it that way because the research on leadership, even in the ’50s, made it clear that that was not an effective leader, but it didn’t stop people from portraying them that way.”
The other is a caretaker who is more approachable, observes when people are about to get burned out and understands that employees are people, not cogs in a machine. Emotional intelligence rules the day. At its extreme, this type of person is the kind of leader Michael Scott on “The Office” wanted to be: best friend, mentor, parent and boss at the same time. At its best, it’s someone who pushes employees to perform well, but knows when it’s time to take a cookie break. Boyatzis said this type of leadership became popular in the 1960s and ’70s as the human relations movement gained traction.
Most people reading this analysis would assume that a combination of the two styles would be ideal, and therefore — if Darwin’s survival of the fittest applies to the corporate jungle — anyone with taskmaster and caregiver traits should be the kind of leader that has most survived in the workplace. But Boyatzis’ findings suggest that people don’t wake up one day and decide which part to play.
Instead, “all of this stuff is pretty well embedded and is at the point where although people have always dreamed of having both, they settle for one or the other,” Boyatzis said.
The brain is set up with two default networks. One default is a task-positive network that activates “analysis mode,” the mindset that allows you to make decisions, focus and analyze problems.
Travel to another part of the brain, and you find the default network where the brain goes to rest. Boyatzis called this the social network, and it’s responsible for creativity, tolerating or accepting new ideas and allowing you to be thoughtful about moral concerns — not right or wrong, he said, but moral justice.
These two networks have very little overlap because they suppress each other.
Boyatzis said he plans to continue researching the two networks, but has made some predictions about what he’ll find. “We believe effective leaders cycle back and forth between these two networks very fast, in under a second,” he said. “We believe effective leaders are much more attuned to using the appropriate network during certain situations.”
But what about using both networks at the same time?
“If you had somebody who could pull that off, chances are they wouldn’t be very functional,” Boyatzis said.
Apparently all those sci-fi fantasies of being able to access more than 20 percent of our brain got it wrong — instead of being like Bradley Cooper in “Limitless” or Scarlett Johansson in the upcoming “Lucy,” we’d just be zombies sitting in executive chairs.
So, if you were reading this post hoping to learn the neurological secrets to unlocking leadership potential, sorry! The important thing is to understand that locking into both networks isn’t necessarily the key to becoming a leader — it’s knowing when to shift between them, and being able to do so with agility.
- Listen: Upwork’s Zoe Harte makes the case for freelancers as core part of talent development strategy
- What should be the employer’s role in tackling student loan debt?
- Intellectual humility is a key skill for tomorrow’s leaders
- Student debt is an impediment to lifelong learning
- Standing still is no longer an option