Can Brain Scans Describe Good Leaders?

by Guy McKhann, M.D.

May 27, 2014


As the political environment heats up, the leadership qualities of potential candidates are under the public microscope. Can advances in our understanding of the brain help assess a candidate’s leadership potential? Andrew Blackman takes on this issue in his article in The Wall Street Journal, “The Inner Workings of the Executive Brain.” Blackman points out that the advances in brain imaging, many of which I have previously discussed, have made it possible to determine what areas of the brain are utilized as an executive makes decisions. Further, he describes the findings among inspirational leaders—those who not only devise a strategy, but effectively deliver the message and get others to buy in.

There is extensive writing in the psychology literature about distinctive leadership roles (for example, “Antagonistic neural networks underlying differentiatedleadership roles,” from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience). There has been agreement that there are two distinct leadership roles: the task-oriented leader and the socioemotional-oriented leader. The task-oriented leader is focused on problem solving, making decisions, and controlling actions. In contrast, the socioemotional leader is involved in emotional self-awareness and ethical decision making and is more likely to be more creative using insightful problem solving. This distinction has been observed and studied since the 1950s. Recently neuroscience has contributed an important physical underpinning, describing two separate, and partially distinct, cortical networks: a task-positive network (TPN) and a default mode network (DMN). These networks are mutually inhibitory; that is, activity in the TPN inhibits activity in the DMN, and vice versa.

Successful leadership requires both problem solving (TPN) and creativity (DMN) attributes. Thus the ability to switch consciously from one to the other is needed. Can this switching ability be learned or enhanced? Blackman addresses that question in the last part of his article. One can imagine not only practicing making this switch, but also being monitored, via brain imaging, as one cortical circuit is activated and the other deactivated. The imaging would provide the basis for neurofeedback, reinforcing the switching to the other circuit.

Living close to Washington, D.C., I am exposed to the finer details of the day-to-day activities of both political parties. Unfortunately, I have the impression that for many participants, neither network is working too well. A little judicious neurofeedback might be a great help.