Neuroleadership – lots of old-fashioned psychology, very little neuroscience


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.


13 responses to “Neuroleadership – lots of old-fashioned psychology, very little neuroscience

  1. Actually the important question is not how much neuroscience there is in Neuroleadership. (The answer to which is – lots. We have published 50 peer-reviewed journal papers, written by many leading neuroscientists including Lieberman and a number of his peers.) The more important question is how much good science there is in leadership development.
    The answer is ‘very little’. There is no definition of leadership, no consistent agreement on how to develop leaders, and the gold standard for assessment is a tool developed by 2 housewives in the 1950’s, which was designed to help women returning from war duties find the right job. Dig into the management literature today and you see shocking statistics about leadership effectiveness, despite billions spent on leadership programs.

    The point of Neuroleadership is to find and share breakthroughs in neuroscience that transform leadership effectiveness. Our goal is to build a more biologically-accurate language for how managers and leaders make decisions, manage their emotions, collaborate with others and create change. Yes, it is an interdisciplinary field, linking social psychology, organizational research and other domains with neuroscience. It is not intended to be pure neuroscience – that’s not the point. And yes, sometimes we are looking through the neuroscience lens at things already being explored by psychology. Yet that doesn’t mean we are not generating value. While it might look ‘banal’ from a distance to illustrate to leaders that the brain is deeply social, this insight has helped a number of organizations transform how they run performance management systems, from an antiquated tool that terrifies people, to systems that enable quality conversations, at a scale of tends of thousands of people. Or another recent case – the bias research is rich and deep in psychology, so much so that we now have over 150 biases to consider. This is a problem if you want to mitigate bias in leaders. Through the lens of neuroscience, we have been to organize our key biases into four main buckets, in a way that can now help organizations decrease the effects of bias (in systems more than individuals.) This was possible by looking through the lens of brain research at the underlying mechanisms involved in the major biases, something Kahneman himself suggested could be done. (This will be published shortly so I am not going to outline the framework here, but I will say it was developed involving Matt Lieberman and another ‘serious’ neuroscientist, and presented for the first time in Sydney at the NLI Summit.)

    I am all for skepticism – I am acutely aware that the research that we base many important decisions in life (including how we educate kids and how we select those in power) is deeply flawed. However, just don’t assume that because the NeuroLeadership field is not ‘pure’ neuroscience that the field is not generating value in other ways, and I don’t mean selling a product. Developing a robust biological science to supplement the art of leadership is today helping tens of thousands of highly rational leaders be more effective at the human side of their job, which is where they are often most lacking.

    I would be happy to debate all this further in any forum 🙂

    • Hi David,

      Many thanks for taking the time to comment at such length and with such clarity. The aims you set out (“to build a more biologically-accurate language for how managers and leaders make decisions, manage their emotions, collaborate with others and create change”) are very laudable. My impression of the management/leadership-coaching field is that it’s filled with poorly thought-out pseudo-science, so applying some rigour can only be helpful.

      One of the points you make seems to me to strike at the heart of the issues I have with the approach:

      “While it might look ‘banal’ from a distance to illustrate to leaders that the brain is deeply social, this insight has helped a number of organizations transform how they run performance management systems…”

      I take the point, but I question the utility of appealing to ‘the brain’. The point is, surely, that people are deeply social. Yes, of course people are controlled by their brains and there is a fascinating discussion to be had about how the brain instantiates social behaviour, but that really doesn’t seem relevant to the kinds of organisational processes that you mention. Understanding that, say, theory of mind is dependent on the medial prefrontal cortex doesn’t provide you with any extra helpful information, if what you’re interested in is changing behaviour.

      The other example you mention (related to cognitive biases and their organisation into four groups) is more interesting – if you’ve genuinely managed to classify cognitive effects into a useful taxonomy based on neuroscientific results, that would be an extremely interesting and fairly unique finding. I understand you may not want to share more details about that right now, but when it’s published I’d be very grateful if you could send me a copy.

      You mention 50 peer-reviewed papers – I honestly can’t find them! A pubmed search for ‘neuroleadership’ returns precisely one result. Google Scholar returns lots of hits, but the majority seem to be opinion pieces published in relatively minor business-relevant journals; very little of much novelty or substance, and almost nothing in the way of genuine scientific research. I previously reached out to Matt Lieberman on Twitter and asked him to send me some good articles, but got no reply. If you have a chance, could you send me some good examples of relevant papers? My e-mail address is neurobollocks[at]gmail[dot]com.

      I hope you’ll forgive my presumption, but, having thought a little further about this, I have a suggestion to make. Bringing scientific rigour and a biological grounding to the study of leadership could also perhaps be achieved through an evolutionary, rather than neuroscientific, analysis. Evolutionary psychology sometimes gets a bad press (and God knows, there are enough examples of bad evo-psycho studies around) but it has a rock-solid conceptual basis, and it strikes me as being potentially very informative for the kind of behaviours and group processes that might be of interest to business leaders. In fact, people are already working on evolutionary leadership theory ( Prof. Mark Van Vugt is a good example ( If you’re not familiar with his work, I think you might find it interesting.

      Thanks again for the comments, and I’d also be very happy to continue the discussion in some way…

  2. Pingback: Neuroscience: “Neuro-leadership” debunked | Uncommon Descent

  3. Pingback: Neuroleadership – lots of old-fashioned p...

  4. Pingback: Neuroleadership - lots of old-fashioned psychol...

  5. Pingback: #2013NLS some reflections on NeuroLeadership - Jon Ingham: HCM Consultant - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  6. So where is the evidence? The site host can’t find the “peer reviewed” articles and neither can I (and I do know where and how to look for them).
    Neuroleadership looks a lot like old wine in new bags.Autonomy and relatedness come from SDT. There is ample research on organizational justice/fairness etc. I would say it is a huge exaggeration to call these “breakthroughs”. So again: show me the evidence!

  7. It’s not bollocks though is it… For example, I think you’d admit that long term potentiation (LTP) and LTD are real biological phenomena, and if you teach things like that to people in any walk of life – in a relevant context, then it will motivate them. Just to know you have the ability to change your brain/default mood/personalilty through awareness and focus is an extraordinarily powerful thing and a huge motivator. I have overcome ME (I suppose you’ll tell me that is a made up syndrome as well?), by understanding quite simple neuroscience (and psychology) and learning how to use my brain. Do you know how many people can’t even get out of bed because of this autoimmune disorder? Yet I have all but cured myself by changing my brain and physiology through the use of my mind.

    Just because it doesn’t 100% fit with your Newtonian outlook, it doesn’t mean it’s bollocks. They don’t claim to be rewriting the rules on management, and like you say, a lot of their methods are already in practice under other guises, but the fact is that if you understand – even a little bit – of what is going on in your head when you’re making decisions or losing your rag, then it helps you rationalise and correct your behaviour. In that sense you cannot argue with this approach, in my humble opinion.

    Why do you spend your time trying to bring people down.. I believe David Rock is no charlatan.. he is simply taking a new stance on management. If it leaves you cold then don’t use it – it’s not as if they are setting up sweat shops to get rich. If you think that it’s beneath you, then put yourself into the shoes of the layman and consider that some basic concepts of neuroscience have the power to change you life.

    An evolutionary stance would be another other way to try and look at it – just like neuroscience or plain numbers.. at the end of the day it’s whatever floats your boat, i.e. what ever helps you understand the relevance of education in management, keeps you interested and motivated; and ultimately lead to change. So if you think evolutionary psychology would be a valid stance, then why not Neuroleadership? Does it pain you to see someone with less knowledge of Neuroscience making more money out of it than you?

    I have no affiliation with David Rock, or the Neuroleadership Institute, but I know that I have become a more competent, amenable, calm, happy and healthy person by reading Daniel Seigel, Rick Hanson, David Rock and Steve Peters, LeDoux, … etc. These people are helping others, and if they make some money along the way then good on them.

    Feel free to bash me on here or email with anything too mean to post in public, at


  8. Pingback: The NeuroBusiness 2015 Conference | NeuroBollocks

  9. Thanks for this article and thanks to the commenters for their thoughtful remarks. As far as I can tell, the primary criticisms are

    1. That the claims under the term “NeuroLeadership” are not exclusively based on neuroscience, or that their ties to neuroscience are tenuous.

    2. That these claims are not new or groundbreaking, and that they primarily consist of repackaging existing research as opposed to conducting new research.

    I haven’t seen you or anyone else suggest that the claims are not valid, or that they are not effective, or that they have been debunked. It appears to me that the intended audience is not researchers but leaders, and the intention is to take solid research, old and new, and present it a way that leaders can apply in business settings.

    To evaluate the importance of a discipline I think one should take into account its intended purpose and audience, and judge it based on its efficacy in that realm.

    For research to be relevant and applied, it must not only be done but shared in a way that is useful not just to academics an researchers but to practitioners. The translation of scientific ideas into practical utility is a significant challenge and a worthy effort in itself.

  10. Pingback: Three management fads to be wary of in 2016 | carolinegourlay

  11. Hi all,
    I’m a bit late to the party, but having stumbled across your thread, wanted to take 2 mins to add my two pennyworth.
    I’ve been banging this drum (More psychological and neuroscientific knowledge in management / leadership training) for about 15 years now. And having started up a business to promote it, have learned some pretty hard lessons.
    i.e. To teach people about the Dopaminergic Mesolimbic Pathway (& such-like) and connect the science of agonist / antagonist opiate based neuro-receptors to the principles of goal setting (for example) requires those you’re teaching do not respond from a psychologically defensive position when faced with such ‘New’ complex language (where any ‘new’ stimulus is automatically interpreted by the brain as a threat until proven otherwise / matched to an existing neural pattern that hasn’t been a threat before). This is an impossible task if you haven’t slowly introduced the audience to the language while selling the benefits of knowing it. (Relative to their own scope of interest / self-interest). e.g. Bottom line benefits for leaders in business, cost down for local authorities etc. … all very ‘shallow!)
    In today’s market (read, Culture in which beliefs in what ‘good’ looks like follow a long established [wiring and firing] pattern), few have the attention span or the interest to go through the required learning curve. Almost all such busy and important people insist on ‘KISS’ (Keeping it Simple) in the shape of a model they can learn in 5 mins while they continue to ‘Blame’ others (project) for the things they don’t understand, perpetuating conditions in which ignorance can flourish ( A lack of Socratic reflection / Hansei).
    What they [people in general] (yes – I know – in terms of clinically clean language, I’m now blaming the market to some extent) don’t want to learn is how ‘Blame’ (& Denial) etc. are part of their own defence mechanisms (projection), or how this links to deeply imprinted issues of self-worth … or how this can or can’t be changed given evidence surrounding neuro-genesis (Gould et al) and from long term potentiation studies.
    There is no hunger for knowledge around the direction of sensory stimulus via the thalamus or directly to the amygdala, or what that looks like in terms of ‘behaviour’ / combined behaviour (& ultimately culture), such that leaders understand what socio-technical conditions they might aim to create to reduce the release of stressor hormones [cortisol] on a chronic basis (as is typical in an environment promoting control through imposed process and procedure – a la Seligman / learned helplessness).
    And that’s just scratching the surface of the kind of things leaders would do well to consider in terms of applied neuroscience / psychology at work … not to mention the DMP triggering production of seratonin in the substantia nigra and the knock on benefits higher seratonin levels can offer in terms of cognition and performance … or the chemical balance required in adult mammalian brains to maximise glucose energy in the pre-frontal cortex and what environment (culture / leadership principles) may or may not maximise the potential for this (leading to higher quality within functions requiring logical conscious thought), or in terms of setting expectations, what rate of change (in terms of neural adaption) is possible, in the absence of the chemicals produced by life threatening fear, whilst sensory stimulus is reinforced daily by the same physical environment … or the mechanics behind the visual cortex in terms of visual management (Lean), or the psychology of a common and shared language [in terms of effective transferred meaning in context of daily activity linked to theories around hierarchical temporal memory] that maximises the effectiveness of Hoshin Kanri as a Strategic deployment model …(that BSC / EFQM etc. fail to do by their very design).
    So, Neuro-leadership (for want of a different term) is incredibly valuable and directly connects to every aspect of running an organisation, school or country … the trouble is, in the absence of the language, we’re reduced to dumbing it down to try and get people engaged with simple models (because people won’t expend the neural glucose energy required to re-map their current brains to learn the kind of language used above) … once such models are in the market, others think they know what they’re talking about once they see a few models and then try and make money from half-baked knowledge, they get good at marketing a little bit of knowledge and before you know it, we have news headlines claiming complete bollocks … viva la capitalist democratic keynesian economic world view of rapid growth over virtue and wisdom … it’s the current culture which is ‘Bollocks’ … not the subject that can improve upon on it, if only it weren’t such a threat to the current status quo … the real issue is this, too many leaders would be too exposed by a greater knowledge of psycho-neuroscience in the proletariat and aren’t psychologically mature enough to move away from their current world view and adopt a new more productive one, because it requires they look at themselves in a world that works when you can make money blaming others, process, technology, politics and anything other than looking at yourself.
    For that reason, I’ve taken a position as a director with a forward looking progressive young team who can adopt and integrate this knowledge and all of my models will be on-line next year for anyone who wants to know more about this stuff, but what I’m not going to do is offer consulting support from this position any longer, because the world of business (in the round) just isn’t ready for it yet. Therefore, an on-line offering will allow those with a genuine interest to find it and I can still put 30yrs experience and 15yrs study to good use. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s