Neuroscience and leadership: Are leaders born, or made?

- October 24, 2018 2 MIN READ

Social scientist, leadership expert and award-winning filmmaker, Silvia Damiano has spent the past two decades pondering the question: is a good leader made or born?

Her quest for answers has seen her delve into neuroscience to uncover the links that form the habits of great leaders. In 2009 Damiano formed the ‘About my Brain Institute’, an organisation which utilises neuroscience to develop leaders, teams and cultures.

Companies as diverse as Microsoft, VISA and the Australian Stock Exchange have employed Damiano’s services and expertise to develop their team leaders. As the balance of power shifts from baby boomers to the next generation, Damiano believes the question of leadership is worth examining.

According to Deloitte Trends Report, 56 per cent of companies believe that they are not ready to meet their leadership needs in the future[1]. Yet Damiano suggests anyone can be a leader if given the right training.

“As our brain changes throughout life, our attitudes and behaviours can also change and these include ‘leadership behaviours’,” Damiano explains.

Still, Damiano acknowledges some people born leaders…

“It’s true that some people are born with innate leadership abilities, in the same way that others are born with an amazing musical gift. Nonetheless, this doesn’t prevent people who are born without these leadership abilities from growing into someone who can lead a project team, start a business or be an inspiration to others by leading a charity campaign.”

A study conducted at Arizona State University showed that leaders that had been rated as ‘inspirational’ by their peers had higher levels of connection in the right frontal lobe – the area of the brain that has to do with social skills and how individuals interact with one another.

Damiano suggests that both upbringing and genetics can result in differing levels of coherence in this area, but this can be adjusted during adulthood.

“Using techniques such as neurofeedback training, the brain can be trained to respond to the ways different individuals respond to stimuli such as stress or anxiety in a productive way.”

While organisations can benefit immensely from strong leadership, Damiano suggests democratisation of leadership is also vital to success.

“So much of what we think about as the archetypal leader is not suited for modern companies and organisations. We tend to place more and more of the work and expectation on the person at the very top, instead of equipping everyone with the necessary tools and practices required to lead.”

Damiano suggests this process tends to inhibit creativity and is the antithesis of neuroleadership, which focuses on creating and implementing ideas through collaboration.

Damiano believes an effective leader can bring about the best in people, drive action and inspire change.

“They bring people together, coordinating them to work towards a common goal. Without effective leadership, organisations would fall apart. Throughout history, there have been many times where people haven’t thought of themselves as leaders but still stepped up to the challenge in times of great need. As we head from the information age to the era of imagination, ensuring that every individual is given tools for leadership will become vital.”

[1] https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/HumanCapital/gx-dup-global-human-capital-trends-2016.pdf