Neuroimaging Identifies Agile Leaders


A recent study of U.S. Army officers suggests the brains of agile leaders may be “wired” differently compared to the rest of us.

The research, published online in the Journal of Applied Psychology, reports that leaders who were found to be more adaptable and complex in their understanding and behaviour appear to have brains that function differently compared to those of less adaptable leaders.

In the study, 103 volunteers, ranging in rank from officer cadet to major, were first surveyed to measure how complex a leader they saw themselves. Officers were defined as being more psychologically complex if they described their leadership in terms of a range of abilities, skills and roles. The officers were then asked to engage in a complex and challenging four-part military leadership scenario. Their performance in these scenarios was assessed by experienced military of leaders to determine the level of adaptability. The officers’ brains were also scanned using neuroimaging techniques.

The results of these assessments found that officers who had a more complex sense of their leadership skills and greater neurological complexity were more adaptive and effective in the four - part military scenarios. The neuroimaging found that networks in the frontal and prefrontal lobes of the most complex and adaptable leaders (areas associated with self-regulation, decision-making and memory) were more complex and differentiated compared to those of leaders who were determined not to be complex.

This research would suggest that we will soon be able to identify and select the most agile leaders by conducting a brain scan. This would imply that agile leaders are born rather than bred. Before investing in the latest brain scanning equipment we need to focus on what this research is really telling us. The study has found a correlation between complex brain wiring and agile not cause and effect. It may be that engaging in complex leadership changes the wiring in the brain. This process of our experience changing the physical structure of our brain is now widely accepted and termed ‘neuroplasticity’.

Despite their wiring all leaders can still work on developing a more agile mind. This would involve: -

  • Avoiding the expertise trap - consciously not applying our old expertise to new and unique problems.
  • Looking with fresh eyes – seeing things through the perspectives of other people.
  • Thinking in new ways – being open to the insights of the intuitive mind rather than over analysing situations with the rational mind.
  • Feeling the fear – seeing failure as just a way of finding out what doesn’t work.
  • Letting go of habitual behaviour – transcending the constraints of personality, self-image and identity

Increasing leaders have to operate in VUCA environments (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). Without engaging in practices that increase leadership agility there’s a danger that our leaders will become beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.

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