When we think of leaders, the image of strong individuals comes to our minds, operating in a top-down command structure. Their outfit could be a military uniform or a finely tailored suit appropriate for corporate world. But that image represents just one kind of leadership, playing out in essentially just one kind of setting. So, what does leadership really mean? How can we differentiate the better from the good? Researchers across globe are looking at these questions, recognizing that some things about great leaders might be true across the board. Being a leader is most often about creating a team environment with those who follow them.
Suzanne Peterson, associate professor of leadership at Thunderbird School of Global Management, says that focusing on what leaders do, rather than just what they say, is crucial to understanding why and how they succeed. “So much of the leadership research out there emphasizes on personality and style,” Peterson said. “At the CEO level, tremendous amount of attention is given to characteristics and approaches of well-recognized leaders such as Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. But my interest leans more towards what makes the best leaders, The Best; I focus on the behaviour most utilized by the greatest leaders.” Peterson also examines the neuroscientific origins of leadership, looking at which parts of the brain leaders are using for different leadership tasks. Much of her work begins with surveys, completed by the leaders themselves or their followers, but neuroscience can add more depth to the conversation. “People think humans are static, you are who you are,” she explains. “But the human brain is actually quite malleable. So, if we understand the neurological differences between leaders and followers, we can potentially help people develop into better leaders.”
Peterson says that there are some things she believes are key to great leaders everywhere: they communicate vision and strategy effectively, they inspire others to want to do more, and they’re capable of building effective relationship networks. Importantly, communication, inspiration, and connections with others, all have roots in neuroscience, which contributes to the rising interest in linking business with neuroscience. “One of the things I’ve recently explored with one of my doctoral students is, the neuroscience foundation of gender differences in leadership. Anecdotally, we’ve heard that women leaders are less averse to risk-taking, display lower levels of confidence, and that they’re more collaborative in their leadership style. Neuroscience research offers some support for these ideas, but not others, which makes for an interesting debate,” Peterson said. The bottom line is that organizations really want specific answers to leadership questions because leadership affects culture, recruiting, retention and performance. When dealing with human behaviour, nothing is certain, but if psychology, management, and neuroscience work together, we can perhaps move a little closer.
Senior Vice President