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Another area of research goes beyond decision making and looks at how good leaders inspire others - from looking at both the leaders and those they are leading. The secret seems to be the carrot rather than the stick.
Dr. Boyatzis and others have done brain scans looking at what happens when people recall their interactions with an effective leader. The patterns were very similar to those found in another study in which people were given positive coaching. Areas of the brain involved in social thinking were activated, along with areas associated with positive emotions.
The best leaders, it seems, are good at motivating people with things like encouragement, praise and rewardsthereby creating a strong emotional bond and sense of purpose among employees.
"We still have this lingering thought that you have to be negative and tough to get things done, when the data says that's just not true at a very basic human level," Dr. Boyatzis says. "It's not to do with gender or cultural differences or anything else. It has to do with how your brain is wired."
Meanwhile, other researchers are investigating the inner workings of the leaders themselves. David Waldman, a management professor at Arizona State University, has worked with Pierre Balthazard and other colleagues to do brain-imaging studies on corporate executives, entrepreneurs and army officers. Their aim is to find out how electrical brain functioning differs in effective and not-so-effective leaders.
One of their findings has to do with inspirational leadership - the ability to articulate a vision that inspires people and makes them buy into your strategy. Not only can these people see the big picture, but they can put that picture into clear words and impart it to others.
Crucially, researchers have found that those abilities are closely tied to connections between certain parts of the brain. Good leaders seem to make those connections naturally, while less effective ones don't.
Now Dr. Waldman and his colleagues are trying to apply that knowledge by training people to access those regions of the brain. The process involves neurofeedback, a technique that trains the brain to learn new processes. A computer monitors people's brain patterns as they observe activity on a screen, such as a movie. Then the computer gives people positive or negative reinforcement.
If the people aren't displaying the desired brain patterns, for example, the screen they're watching may go fuzzy. When they do display the right brain patterns, it becomes sharp again. Gradually, people's brains learn to follow the patterns that are positively reinforced.
The theory is that by the end of the training, people's brains will access those visionary-leadership areas naturallyand, with any luck, make it easier for them to inspire people more easily.
"We are right on the cusp of being able to assist leaders to rewire their own brains through neurofeedback," says Dr. Waldman. "It's based on a lot of research, and the idea is to identify patterns of brain activity that are reflective of a better leader, then give direct computer training to help people develop those patterns for themselves."
He says the technique is already being used in other fields, such as treating attention-deficit disorder. But neurofeedback still needs more research before researchers can be sure it will work in developing leadership ability. Even if it does, it will most likely need to be used in conjunction with more traditional techniques, such as coaching.
"We think this could be something that becomes an important part of the arsenal of techniques in leadership development," he says.
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