• Alice Ma

What Makes the Brain of a Leader Unique?


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Leadership is a highly coveted skill. It’s something that employers look for in their employees, universities look for in their students, and regular people look for in their peers. Being a leader often brings praise, attention, and responsibility, but what truly makes a good leader? There are countless soft skills that constitute a respectable leader, but what about the neurological and biological background of leadership? Let’s take a look at what exactly makes a leader, from brain chemistry to genetics to personality.


The evolutionary leadership theory states that humans have unique psychological mechanisms for solving problems using a distinction between leaders and followers¹. This theory assumes that everything we do is the product of psychological strategies that have evolved over generations and that the dichotomy between leadership and followership has been and is essential to the development of our species. This theory makes leadership a uniquely human trait.


The definition of leadership has changed over time, and a new standard has emerged recently. Effective leaders are those who resonant with their followers, making them feel valued and needed, creating a relationship built on trust and belief rather than fear and punishment². This means that there is no fixed set of personality traits that make up a leader because each leader’s success is contingent on his/her followers. For instance, the traits of strong leadership vary from culture to culture, with characteristics like generosity and conscientiousness being culture-specific³. These traits, however, are usually not ones people are born with.


In fact, a study analyzing the influence of genetics and personality on leadership found that only 30% of one’s ability to be a leader is dictated by their genes. The study observed identical twins sharing the same DNA and fraternal twins sharing 50% of the same DNA to determine that while genetic influences can contribute to useful personality traits, what matters more is the environment that people find themselves in. Great leaders are made, not born. Other academics have also agreed with this sentiment. The general consensus among behavioral psychologists is that situational factors drive leadership behavior.


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Outside of a genetic perspective, there is research looking at aspects of brain functioning as a determinant for leadership qualities. A study looked at brain activity between followers and leaders in an experiment where two people performed a synchronized finger-tapping exercise and subconsciously adjusted to each other’s tapping, establishing a leader and a follower. Analysis of the data collected found that the “leader” had more pronounced right-frontal brain activity. The frontal lobe of the brain is responsible for cognitive functions such as impulse control, problem-solving, social interaction, and advanced motor function. The increase in activity suggests that leaders, consciously or subconsciously, invest more energy in planning and control.


Another study found that the participant assigned to be a leader in a series of hand movement exercises had stronger brain activity in the visual cortex, possibly reflecting the notion that leaders are astute and observant towards their actions and those of their followers.


A similar study looked at classically trained violinists playing a duet. Without being assigned a role, one violinist would take the lead while the other would follow, creating a leader-follower dynamic. The study found that both the leader and follow experienced unique brain activation when compared to solo playing¹⁰. The finding suggests that the interaction between leader and follower is dependent on the degree to which each partner adapts to others, meaning in order for a leader-follower dynamic to be successful, both participants must have a shared goal and be willing to cooperate to achieve it.


Brain imaging has also seen that the caudate nucleus, the part of the brain that provides feelings of reward and accomplishment, is associated with the feeling of being followed¹¹. This means that being a leader makes us happy and proud, giving us a sense of reward and deserving.


We know that leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin, but how does being a follower affect your brain chemistry and activity differently than being the leader?


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Leaders are often divided into two overarching categories: resonant and dissonant.

  • A resonant leader is someone who can impact their followers at a deeper, emotional level, allowing these leaders to nurture that relationship.

  • A dissonant leader is oftentimes unconcerned about the emotions and wellbeing of their followers, exerting their control in a more dictatorship style to keep things moving forward.


A study looked at the neural pathways activated when people interacted with a resonant leader compared to interaction with a dissonant leader. The study found that experiences with a resonant leader activated 14 regions of interest in the brain, whereas 6 regions were activated and 11 regions were deactivated during interactions with dissonant leaders¹². This means that when interacting with a resonant leader, followers experience a positive feedback loop where areas of interest are activated, facilitating the wish to continue working with this leader and establish a meaningful relationship.


Our brains are unimaginably complex and remarkable; they tell us so much about the interactions we have, the experiences we’ve gone through, and the connections we make. Looking at all of this information gives us the tools to become better versions of ourselves and helps us to understand both ourselves and others. Knowing what makes a good leader will help make you a better one.


Footnotes

1. Vugt, M. V., & Ronay, R. (2014). The evolutionary psychology of leadership: Theory, review, and roadmap. Organizational Psychology Review, 4(1), 74–95. doi.org/10.1177/2041386613493635.

2. Reicher, S. D., Platow, M. J., Haslam, S. A. (2007). The New Psychology of Leadership. Scientific American, scientificamerican.com/article/the-new-psychology-of-leadership-2007-08/.

3. Vugt & Ronay (2014).

4. Arvey, R. D., Rotundo, M., Johnson, W., Zhang, Z., McGue, M. (2006). The determinants of leadership role occupancy: Genetic and personality factors. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(1), 1-20. doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2005.10.009.

5. Ibid.

6. Konvalinka, I., Bauer, M., Stahlhut, C., Hansen, L. K., Roepstorff, A., Frith, C. D. (2014). Frontal alpha oscillations distinguish leaders from followers: Multivariate decoding of mutually interacting brains. NeuroImage, 94, 79-88, doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.03.003.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Zhou, G., Bourguignon, M., Parkkonen L., Hari, R. (2016). Neural signatures of hand kinematics in leaders vs. followers: A dual-MEG study. NeuroImage, 125, 731-8, doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.11.002.

10. Vanzella, P., Balardin, J. B., Furucho, R. A., Morais, G., Janzen, T. B., Sammler, D., Sat, J. R. (2019). fNIRS Responses in Professional Violinists While Playing Duets: Evidence for Distinct Leader and Follower Roles at the Brain Level. Frontiers Psychology, doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00164.

11. Sabu, H., Morita, T., Takahashi, H., Naito, E., Minoru, A. (2019). Being a leader in a rhythmic interaction activates reward-related brain regions. Neuroscience Research, 145, 39-45. doi.org/10.1016/j.neures.2018.08.009.

12. Boyatzis, R. (2011). Neuroscience and Leadership: The Promise of Insights. Ivey Business Journal.