Happening right now (19th-21st of June) in Sydney is the 2013 Asia-Pacific Neuroleadership Summit, organised by the Neuroleadership Institute. There are two other summits happening this year, one in London and another in Washington, and the summits have been running annually since 2007. Neuroleadership appears to be a ‘thing’ then, but what is it exactly? The term was apparently first coined by David Rock in this 2006 article in the magazine ‘Strategy+Business’. According to the front page of the institute’s website, neuroleadership is:
“Neuroleadership is an emerging field of study connecting neuroscientific knowledge with the fields of leadership development, management training, change management, consulting and coaching.”
Sounds fairly reasonable. Unfortunately, the amount of genuine applied neuroscience involved appears to be very little, and in fact the focus appears to be more on fairly standard psychology concepts that have been knocking around for years, if not decades. The program for the summit focuses on concepts like cognitive biases, social psychology, stress management, ‘wisdom’, and managing performance. These all strike me as being psychological phenomena, and very amenable to investigation and explanation at a psychological, rather than neuroscientific, level. And in fact, organisational and business psychologists have been doing that for some time. Reading through more detailed highlights of last year’s (2012) summit also reveals little mention of neuroscience, and lots more fairly standard applications of psychological concepts.
I’ve been pretty much unable to find any genuine pieces of research related to neuroleadership either; a Google Scholar search on ‘neuroleadership’ turns up lots of opinion-type pieces, but nothing of any real substance.
There are some serious neuroscientists involved with the neuroleadership institute. One of them is Matt Lieberman, a professor at UCLA, and, by any reasonable measure, an outstanding scientist. I was genuinely a big fan of Matt’s work during my PhD and while my changing research interests mean I haven’t followed his more recent work as closely, I have a great deal of respect for him. Interestingly, I found a draft of a paper by Matt (and Naomi Eisenberger, another faculty member at UCLA) which you can view here (PDF). The paper discusses business scenarios from the point of view of social cognitive neuroscience, but again, the (very simplified) neuroscience in the paper seems to be more of an adjunct, or add-on to the main message, which is that attention needs to be paid to the social and emotional needs of workers, in order to maximise their performance and job satisfaction. This doesn’t seem particularly ground-breaking, and makes me wonder what precisely neuroscience is adding to the issue. Prof. Lieberman’s due to speak at all three neuroleadership summits this year, and is on the advisory board of the institute. Maybe he just likes some free trips around the world every year.*
If one was feeling magnanimous, the field of neuroleadership could be described as an emerging discipline with lofty ambitions, but one that has yet to really define its remit and fully understand its limitations. A more cynical evaluator could characterise it as a gosh-darn whizzo wheeze to re-package some tired old concepts from 1980s organisational psychology textbooks and make them all shiny and new by sticking ‘neuro’ on the front and having lots of pictures of CGI brains in your presentations. Regular readers will know that a surfeit of magnanimity is not something I tend to suffer from.
It’s hard to get too splenetic about neuroleadership. It may be bullshit, but it’s not clinics ripping off parents with therapies that don’t work or people doing unnecessary SPECT scans on kids. Ultimately, it’s one set of business people selling some bollocks to another set; all they’re really doing is wasting their own time and effort.
*And honestly, who can blame him? Academic life has few enough perks. Seriously; good luck to him.