Brain-Based Leadership: What’s Missing?

Categories: Global Leadership, Global Mindset

Approaches to leadership based on neuroscience are alluring. Advances in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have provided an exciting new window into the everyday functions of the brain. Consultants and coaches eagerly cite the latest neuroscience research as the basis for their leadership advice, focusing on how it can be applied to vital tasks such as driving a successful change initiative.

And what could be a more common human asset than the brain, with its magnificent synapses and plasticity as well as its flaws? Brain-based leadership development seems sensible, scientific, and compelling, with the potential for global applications that bridge pesky nuances, paradoxes, and differences.

What could possibly be missing?

Before jumping on this popular bandwagon, let’s explore other elements that comprise a full human being and contribute to successful leadership. Here’s an example:

Albert Farnsworth was a fast-rising leader from the UK assigned to run a firm in Hong Kong that his company had recently acquired. Confident in his prior leadership track record, primarily from his work in northern Europe, and armed with a UK-based coach informed by neuroscience research, he developed a plan for integrating the new acquisition.

Albert sought to reduce status threats related to the acquisition by demonstrating respect for the status of the firm’s previous leaders. He preserved their titles, assigning to himself the newly-coined title of Managing Director. In his usual egalitarian style, he frequently asked local managers and employees for their input on key decisions, with brainstorming sessions designed to draw out their ideas. He sought to preserve employees’ sense of autonomy and certainty by establishing broad goals for the organization and then giving them room to create their own solutions – this was a leadership style that had worked well for him in the past and had been a key part of his own success story to date. He also began to introduce them to their new matrix counterparts around the world, stressing how the new parent company’s relatively flat hierarchy enabled the best ideas to move quickly between regions.

However, the plan did not generate the results that Albert had anticipated. Both sales and morale began to drop, his team brainstorming sessions seemed to go nowhere, and soon key junior employees began leaving the firm, hired away by local companies. When Albert asked his local HR manager for results from employee exit interviews, he was unpleasantly surprised by the criticisms of his own leadership, expressed in comments such as the following:

“We don’t know who the boss is anymore. Our previous leaders didn’t perform well and that is why they had to sell the company. Now they are stuck in the middle and don’t know what to do.”

— Anonymous Employee

“Albert is always asking for our opinion, which makes us think that he doesn’t know what he is doing and is a weak leader.”

— Anonymous Employee

“He seems to delegate and disappear. We want someone we can bring problems to and then do problem-solving together.”

— Anonymous Employee

“We want more change and faster. The market is moving very rapidly here, and the new boss should fire older managers who can’t keep up.”

— Anonymous Employee

Albert’s primary failing and one that almost derailed his career was his attempt to replicate his prior success by using the same leadership style in a different cultural environment. In this case, his application of neuroscience to address the importance of status issues during the ownership transition contributed to overconfidence in his plan and actually reinforced his cultural blindness rather than providing him with contextually appropriate leadership strategies.

Brain-Based Leadership: The Missing Hemisphere

There have been various critiques of neuroscience-based leadership approaches and their skillful branding, which includes colorful brain models and MRI images at training events to highlight their scientific aura. Warren Bennis, a well-known pioneer in the field of leadership development, noted that much of this new movement repackages prior insights, especially those of Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence. He states, “What worries me is people being taken in by the language of it and ending up with stuff we’ve known all along.”[1]

While such comments raise concerns, there is arguably a deeper problem with neuroscience-based leadership approaches that have not received sufficient attention: their universal claims and attractive packaging can reinforce a convenient “one size fits all” solution for leadership development across global organizations. Such standardized solutions are usually ethnocentric, reinforcing the impulse to evaluate others based on our own standards and to make “them” more like “us;” this becomes even easier to justify with a seemingly invincible scientific rationale.

The core problem with the current applications of neuroscience to leadership is not that they are wrong, but that they are incomplete, unbalanced, and potentially misleading. It turns out that there is a lot more evidence available, including research from additional branches of neuroscience, that can help provide a fuller picture of humanity with vital implications for leadership.

Nature and Nurture

Anyone who studied Psychology 101 in college during the last fifty years was likely introduced to the nature vs. nurture debate. Simply put, decades of research tell us that human beings are products of both their genetic makeup (nature) and their physical and cultural environments (nurture).

In fact, a key differentiator of humans from other species is that they are less genetically pre-programmed (nature) and more responsive to novel or changing environmental factors (nurture). Humans develop from childhood based on cultural influences such as how they are held, who they live with, where they sleep, what they eat, the sounds they hear, the stories they are told, the ways in which they are praised or scolded, and so on. One definition of culture is that it is a way of addressing common human challenges in a particular environment. Each culture passes on the successful survival methods of its elders that fit a distinctive time and place, and these learnings shape the way that each brain is configured.

To date, neuroscience-based leadership approaches have focused primarily on the “nature” side of nature/nurture equation, highlighting common features of human physiology and cognitive functioning, while generally ignoring the “nurture” or environmental component, which plays an equally powerful role in shaping human development. Culture is too often treated cheerfully as an organizational feature to be “built” or “redefined” based on scientific insights into the brain, rather than as a pervasive developmental influence that shapes the very functioning of the brain itself in different ways, depending upon our upbringing.

Culture and the Brain: Research Examples

There are a number of studies commonly neglected by current neuroscience leadership gurus that provide fascinating and important evidence for how human brains can be wired differently based on cultural influences.

Study #1: Does Self Refer to “Me” or “We”?

The prefrontal cortex region of the brain is believed to represent our idea of the self. One research study found that this area became active when U.S. study participants thought of their own personal identity and traits. For Chinese study participants, on the other hand, this region was activated by adjectives describing both themselves and their mothers.[2]

In other words, the very definition of self is shaped by culture. Different definitions of “me” or “we” can and do lead to very different leadership styles. 

Study #2: Attention to Objects vs. Context

Another study revealed distinctly different attentional bias based on culture. This study showed sample images of both Western and East Asian participants. Westerners, whose cultures place a high value on independence and individuality, tended to focus their attention on particular foreground objects, with less regard for context and relationships among items.

In contrast, East Asian participants, whose cultures emphasize interdependent relationships and awareness of context, focused their attention on the context of the image and demonstrated relational processing of information.[3]

So not only our self-definition but also what we pay attention to is culturally influenced. Leaders from different cultural backgrounds may notice very different things, with some focusing on the action items in the foreground, and others examining the broader context. 

Study #3: Valuing “Modesty” or “Assertiveness”

A third study found that the area of the brain that produces dopamine, or the “feel-good hormone,” responds differently based on cultural conditioning. The study showed volunteers from the U.S. and Japan drawings of people standing in a more submissive pose, with their heads down and shoulder hunched, and of other people standing in a more dominant pose, with their arms crossed and their faces forward.

Respondents interpreted the same pictures differently based on their own cultural values. Japanese participants produced dopamine when viewing the first drawing, as they interpreted the submissive posture positively, seeing it as a demonstration of modesty and respect. U.S. participants produced dopamine when viewing the second drawing, as they saw the dominant pose as an indication of confidence and strength.[4] 

Implications for Leaders

These three studies and others like them from the emerging field of “cultural neuroscience” have enormous implications for developing leaders on a global scale. To avoid becoming the latest form of ethnocentrism, dressed up this time in white lab coats, brain-based leadership approaches must embrace both nature and nurture to help leaders work effectively around the world.

If how we define ourselves, what we perceive, and the judgments we make are all shaped by our cultural environment, leaders from different backgrounds need to understand both what makes them similar to and what makes them different from their global colleagues. They must also cultivate skills for adapting to each other in integrated global workplaces that could involve virtual meetings, travel to distant locations, or working with a diverse mix of colleagues in the same building.

About the Author

Dr. Ernest Gundling, Ph.D.
Managing Partner at Aperian Global

Ernest Gundling, Ph.D., is a co-Founder of Aperian Global & currently serves as Managing Partner. Ernest works with clients to develop strategic global approaches to leadership, organization development, and relationships with key business partners. He’s a frequent contributor to many industry publications and has authored several books including Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.
Connect with Ernie on LinkedIn.


[1]  Jena McGregor, The Business Brain in Close-up, Bloomberg Businessweek, July 22, 2007:

[2] Sharon Begley, “West Brain, East Brain: What a Difference Culture Makes,” Newsweek, February 18, 2010. Begley is also the author of several books, including The Emotional Life of Your Brain, and Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.

[3] Angela Gutchess, Robert Welsh, Aysecan Boduroglu, and Denise Park, “Cultural differences in neural function associated with object processing,” Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 2006, pp. 102-9.

[4] Study by Nalini Ambady and Jonathan Freeman originally published in Neuroimage, Vol. 47, No. 1, 2009; also summarized in an article by Beth Azar, “Your Brain on Culture,” American Psychological Association, November 2010, Vol 41, No. 10, that cites numerous advances in the field of “cultural neuroscience.” Ambady is quoted as stating, “We see that what the brain finds rewarding reflects the values of the dominant culture. People can see the same stimulus but have completely different neural responses.” See also, for example, Heejung Kim and Joni Sasaki, “Cultural Neuroscience: Biology of the Mind in Cultural Contexts,” Annual Review of Psychology Vol. 65:487-514, January 2014.