Brain-Based Leadership: What’s Missing? (Part 2)

Posted on September 19, 2018

Brain-Based Leadership: What’s Missing? (Part 2)

Neuroscience and Leadership

By Ernest Gundling, Ph.D.

The first article in this series suggested that approaches to leadership informed by neuroscience are incomplete if they fail to take into account not only how the brain functions but also the cultural influences that shape it. We cited research suggesting that how we define ourselves, what we perceive, and the judgments we make are all profoundly influenced by our cultural environment.

In Part Two we will explore the implications of a more holistic view of the brain, encompassing both “Nature” and “Nurture,” for leadership development.

Culture & Leadership: The Missing Hemisphere

Consider the SCARF model described by David Rock, head of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of “Your Brain at Work.” Although the five elements of this model – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness – are convincingly linked with neuroscience research into fundamental brain functions such as our “fight or flight” impulses, all of these elements are also subject to culturally based indoctrination and interpretation. It would be a mistake to assume that each SCARF element manifests itself similarly everywhere, or that the model can be applied to promote “culture change” without cultural understanding.

For example, while it is true that Status, the “S” in SCARF, is important everywhere, this aspect of human behavior is expressed and interpreted quite differently based on the particular environmental context. Some cultures are far more hierarchical than others, and hierarchy is also manifested in different ways.

Neuroscience & Leadership - hierarchy (1)In China, for instance, it is relatively common to have a person who is clearly in the role of the “boss,” issuing orders in a directive style, while many U.S. and Northern European organizations attempt to distribute significant authority to other leadership team members and throughout the organization, endorsing “leadership at all levels.” 

So in one cultural environment, the greatest perceived threat could be having a leader who is overly directive, violating others’ sense of status, while in another it might be having no boss or unclear lines of authority. In the case of Albert Farnsworth, the expatriate described in Part One, by attempting to drive change in his new environment using his own culturally conditioned approach to status — delegating most authority to local leaders, engaging in regular brainstorming sessions, and introducing local employees to their global matrix counterparts — the result was confusion and disengagement rather than effective “culture change.”

As generations of expatriates have discovered at great cost, culture change is possible within an organization or team with sustained focus over time, but only based on deep knowledge of the broader national cultural environment — and woe to those who embark on a mission to change the whole country. Through the mental lens of Albert’s more hierarchical, group-oriented local employees in Hong Kong, in contrast to his self-image as a skillful facilitator and change agent, he appeared instead to be a weak and uncertain leader who failed to make decisive changes while preferring to “delegate and disappear.”

Status can even take on different, complex forms based on national and organizational cultures that frequently harbor contradictions. Many companies in the U.S. pride themselves on their egalitarian cultures and informal style, while still taking for granted executive compensation that may be as much as 900 times the median employee salary. Major differences can also exist between generations, regions, functions, genders, and socioeconomic classes within the same country.

In Albert’s new Hong Kong-based acquisition, it turned out that generational differences were critically important. The most senior managers whose own parents had known great hardship and social chaos (many were refugees from civil war and the Cultural Revolution) valued the respect for their status offered by an unchanged job title as well as continuity with previous policies. Meanwhile, employees in the same workplace from a younger millennial generation were more accustomed to prosperity, social stability, and constant opportunities for growth. Many of these employees were far less attached to the status quo and more ready to embrace change, expressing impatience at Albert’s slow pace in moving conservative senior leaders out of the way (“After all, they are the ones who failed and had to sell the company”). For these younger employees, his demonstration of respect for the status of senior local managers was misplaced, and quickly became a source of frustration and disengagement.

What is true for Status also holds for any other aspect of the SCARF model — universal human traits are molded by one’s physical environment and cultural upbringing and are expressed in workplaces around the world in ways that are both similar and different. The SCARF model highlights what we need to pay attention to, but not necessarily how to adapt our approach to fit different global environments. Leaders ignore culture at their peril, including the nuances and differences within cultures as well as between them. Numerous costly failures, including cross-border acquisitions, change initiatives, and rollouts of well-intended inclusion & diversity efforts (“Gender issues are the same everywhere, right?”) can be traced to cultural blindness.

Cultural Differences: Five Dimensions

The cultural dimensions below overlap with four out of five elements of the SCARF model:

  • Status: Egalitarianism/Status
  • Certainty: Risk/Certainty
  • Autonomy: Independent/Interdependent
  • Relatedness: Task/Relationship

These dimensions highlight contrasts between national cultures that have been borne out by decades of research, including our own data from tens of thousands of survey respondents. National cultures may change over time, but the process is generally slow and uneven and can result in either convergence or divergence in comparison with other national norms. The way in which people actually behave in each of these dimensions is influenced by one’s own dynamic cultural setting just as it is by the structure of the brain — in fact, these two pervasive influences on human behavior are closely intertwined.

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Neuroscience & Leadership - What's MissingLeadership Development: Implications

So what are the implications of the “Nurture” side of the Nature/Nurture equation for leadership development? There is of course value to current neuroscience-based approaches if they are used wisely, based on the knowledge that they address one part of the leadership development picture and are not a panacea. When used exclusively, however, particularly in a global leadership context, they can be readily classified as fitting either the “Denial” or “Minimization” phases of the intercultural development scale that charts movement from a monocultural, or ethnocentric mindset, to an intercultural mindset.

The stages in this scale, themselves derived from extensive research, are Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance, and Adaptation. Leadership approaches that focus on human similarities while consistently underestimating differences cannot support progress toward the more advanced stages of this developmental spectrum. Approaches grounded in the brain’s physiology often tell us that our brains perceive “difference” as a potential threat, but give us inadequate guidance on how to adapt. Full understanding of the power of culture requires a pragmatic embrace of both similarities and differences.

The Intercultural Development Continuum[1]

More complete approaches to neuroscience and leadership development will incorporate both Nature and Nurture, or brain physiology and culture. Current and future global leaders need to cultivate knowledge and skills that include:

  • Personality and Cultural Self-Awareness — personal characteristics as well as culturally based assumptions
  • Psychological and Cultural Neuroscience — common features of the human brain as well as the developmental impacts of different cultural contexts that also have an influence on how humans behave
  • Culture Change and Cultural Influence — how to change culture in more “micro” settings (particularly organizational and team cultures) while at the same time recognizing the pervasive influence of national cultures (transmitted in families, schools, and workplaces) on our behavior.

A balanced approach to leadership development includes deliberately paradoxical terms such as “adaptive authenticity,”[2] acknowledging the need to work both with what we are given and with who we can become. Leaders must draw upon their own upbringing and core values while being deliberately open to “mind-blowing” experiences with colleagues from other parts of the world that could change them forever. This approach is flexible and open-ended, acknowledging that successful leaders can and do accomplish their tasks very differently and that there are various ways to inspire colleagues and to solve problems effectively in different environments.

One-size-fits-all approaches to leadership development in any form are alluring but ultimately bound to run squarely into their own limitations. Even attractive and modern-sounding packages such as neuroscience-based leadership can prove lopsided and therefore circumscribed in their usefulness unless they embrace how human beings are both fundamentally similar and profoundly different.

You can learn more about what it takes to be a strong global leader in the engaging and practical book: “Leading Across New Borders.”

About The Author

ernest gundling ph.d

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 the recently published, Leading Across New Borders:  How to Succeed as the Center Shifts.
Connect with Ernie on LinkedIn.


[1]  The Intercultural Development Continuum was developed by Mitchell Hammer and Milton Bennett. See,

[2] Herminia Ibarra, “The Authenticity Paradox,” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2015.

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