MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

Embodied leadership: Is neuroscience the next frontier in management?

Contributed by Peter Hirst, Associate Dean, MIT Sloan Executive Education


There has been much excitement in the media lately about how breakthroughs in neuroscience can be applied to improve our daily lives. From brain-boosting juices and snacks, to game apps designed to keep our brains agile, to marketing techniques promising more effective selling--neuroscience has captured public imagination.

While it's important to separate the hype from actual science, the fact that advances in brain-imaging technology have finally given researchers the tools to see with greater accuracy what's going on in our brains is full of promise. Long-held beliefs about how the brain works are now turning out to be if not exactly untrue, then at least up for debate. It's understandable that people are excited by the potential implications of these new possibilities. 

Applying Neuroscience Insights to Leadership Education

As Associate Dean of Executive Education at MIT Sloan School of Management, a big part of my job is to champion scientific knowledge as it applies to management and leadership education. So, needless to say, I was quite excited to learn what brain-based insights can teach business leaders.

My first glimpse of the tremendous potential that advances in neuroscience can bring to business leadership happened at the UNICON 2013 conference--a meeting of executive education providers from the world's leading business schools. It was there that I met Dr. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and executive leadership coach who gave a compelling presentation on how brain science can be applied in management and leadership education.

Her presentation posed a number of thought-provoking questions. How can our understanding of the agility and diversity of thinking affect our leadership effectiveness? Is it actually possible to create a whole new mindset and to disrupt deeply embedded leadership patterns? Can we truly overcome what Harvard Graduate School of Education professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey call our "immunity to change"? Can leaders truly be transformed and, in turn, transform their organizations? I was so impressed by what I saw that I immediately started thinking of ways to bring her knowledge to MIT Sloan

The Intersection of Psychology and Neuroscience in Management  

I connected Swart with MIT Sloan management professor Dr. Deborah Ancona and the two became fast friends and colleagues. What's especially interesting about their collaboration is that Ancona is a psychologist by training, and the complementarity of behavioral science and neuroscience is an exciting area of exploration for Ancona and Swart alike.

I caught up with Ancona and Swart recently to hear their thoughts on the subject. It's worth noting that our conversation took place at Café Artscience, a restaurant near MIT that looks like a glamorous space station and uses lab-like tools and methods in the kitchen and behind the bar to influence human behavior with a creative menu. 

For Ancona, neuroscience brings biological proof to what has been known to psychologists for a long time. She is excited about finding ways that will help people to become better leaders. "We know that the brain likes to travel worn neural networks that result in habits getting reinforced. While some of these habitual modes of operating may be quite beneficial, some are not," she pointed out. "If we could learn more about how to shift these neural networks to enable new modes of operating, this would be a real help to those of us interested in leadership development."

She used the example of risk-taking behavior to illustrate her point. "When group members get together they can act in ways that are riskier than they would act individually, or they scapegoat outsiders. However, the work of Rebecca Saxe at MIT shows that this may be due to group members actually bypassing that part of their brains that are responsible for moral reasoning." Dr. Saxe is a neuroscientist at MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a leading expert on human social cognition.

It stands to reason that a deeper understanding of our collective brains can be of great service to business leaders, managers, and employees. If we have better insights into why we make decisions the way we do, we can course-correct ourselves or react to the decisions of others more effectively. "We will learn more about how to create change, how to control learning, and how to understand moral reasoning," Ancona explained.

Swart sees a co-evolution of the two areas of research, "I think that psychology and the physiology of neuroscience will become more correlated going forward. They are on a spectrum under the umbrella of cognitive sciences, and the advent of brain scanning has put depth and data behind the psychology that has informed business and leadership for decades." 

The Brain-Body-Mind Connection

Of course, a biological basis for human behavior is not a new concept, only now we have more clarity on the biological processes that influence and govern our actions. There has been a revolution in what we know about how the brain works. "New technology enables us to see which parts of the brain are activated at any given time and what inputs cause what kinds of brain-usage patterns," Ancona said, adding that "We are also only now able to evaluate the impact of things like meditation, sleep, being bilingual, playing music, etc. on brain functioning."

Swart believes that we need to recognize our entire being as an interconnected system--brain, body, and mind. "The recent global financial crisis, advances in technology, and globalization have meant that people are getting more overwhelmed and suffering the consequences of lack of integrity or coherence in the brain-body-mind system and looking for solutions," she said. "Now that these solutions are backed by science, they are more pragmatic practices for managers and leaders."

Swart places great emphasis on work-life balance, proper sleep and nutrition, and keeping the body healthy so the mind stays sharp. Looking forward, she sees neuroscience as not only a way of explaining our behavior and decision-making, but also a means of augmenting our physiological reality. "We will be able to use wearable technology and biometric data to personalize leadership development," she predicts.   

Neuroscience for Leadership and Teams

Swart and Ancona co-teach an executive education program at MIT Sloan called Neuroscience for Leadership. The two-day course provides hands-on application of concepts and techniques derived from brain research and psychology that can improve individual leadership performance, as well as that of teams and organizations. The course material is based largely on "Neuroscience for Leadership Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage"--an award-winning book that Swart co-wrote with Kitty Chisholm, a professional leadership development coach, and Dr. Paul Brown, a clinical and organizational psychologist--and Ancona's MIT Sloan MBA course Discovering Your Leadership Strategy, which builds on ideas like Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck's "mindset;" Denis Perkins' "ghosts in the executive suite," a concept that examines the impact of family systems and childhood experiences on leadership practices; "immunity to change;" and some new ideas that Ancona is developing on "distributed leadership." 

Introduced last year, the program quickly became popular with executives eager to put the latest neuroscience insights to work for the good of their organizations. True to the instructors' holistic approach to the brain-body-mind system, the program schedule includes an early-morning yoga session and nutritious meals with plenty of vegetarian options.

Buoyed by the success of Neuroscience for Leadership, Swart has just launched another MIT Sloan Executive Education program called Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People. In this new course, designed to help leaders motivate and inspire their peers and teams in ways that catalyze innovation and increase business success, Swart focuses on helping participants to develop the neuroscience-based coaching skills that have proven effective in her own executive coaching practice, The Unlimited Mind. The concept of "manager/leader as coach" is very current and provides a set of tools based in both science and practice--how very MIT!


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