At present, the work is focusing on identifying the mental states of effective leaders, but the researchers hope soon to move toward intervention. “I think we’re getting very close … to being able the change the brains of leaders, to change the wiring, if you will, in a positive direction, to help make them better leaders,” says Waldman. “That’s going to happen within the next couple of years.”
Neurofeedback for business leaders might work roughly the same way as it would for a marksman; the user, equipped with an EEG cap and some sort of haptic feedback mechanism, would engage in whatever activity was beign worked on, such as a problem solving exercise. Real-time feedback would alert the user when their brain states reflect optimal leadership qualities, such as empathy or attention.
Of course, one question the researchers face is whether business leaders would be interested in, let alone be willing to pay, to be outfitted with EEG caps and participate in these neurofeedback sessions. But it would hardly be unprecedented: private companies are already offering neurofeedback as therapy for everything from pain management to attention deficit disorders, and high-paid executive have been known to opt for extreme options that give them an edge, even taking prescription “smart” drugs like Adderall to improve their mental acuity.
Waldman believes, similarly, that neurofeedback represents a potential huge market. “If people try to do a little accounting, there is an amazing amount of money spent in in North America, on leadership development, everything from executive coaching to motivational speakers, to something called 360-degree feedback; billions of dollars are spent on this,” says Waldman. “But very little has been done up until to now in terms of neuroscience applications to this problem.”
While neurofeedback might not replace those other leadership training tools, it could supplement it. “It’s something that gets right to the source: the brain,” he says.
Of course, if neurofeedback can make for better military and corporate leaders, what about better political leaders? In the run-up to the US presidential elections, it’s a question that is on many people’s minds.
But Waldman says we should not expect to see the Democratic or Republican candidate hooked up to EEG sensors anytime soon. “I try to avoid political leadership: It adds a lot of noise into the process,” he says. “Politics involves ideology, things that are much different from the kinds of things we face with business leaders, or even military leaders.”