Leaders are born, not made. Or at least so goes the conventional wisdom. But a growing field called “neuroleadership” aims to change all of that by applying brain training techniques, originally designed to help make better soldiers, to help less gifted business leaders become better, or even help good leaders become great.
Chris Berka, the CEO and co-founder of California-based Advanced Brain Monitoring (ABM), which makes electroencephalography (EEG) caps that monitor the brain’s electrical activity, has been working with the military for several years on neuroscience-oriented technologies that can help enhance soldiers’ cognitive functions. “The military has embraced all of this work,” says Berka, whose company has received funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), as well as the Army and Navy, for work on a variety of military-funded devices, including a monitor designed to alert Marines to fatigue and “brain goggles,” that help detect when the subconscious brain has detected a possible threat.
ABM’s forays into the world of leadership began with work on a Darpa-funded research project that used neuroscience to accelerate learning among members of the military. As part of that project, Berka and ABM looked at ways to improve marksmanship by examining the brain waves and heart rates of US Marine Corps marksman coaches, as well as members of the US Olympic archery team, and even professional golfers. The idea was to identify the specific brain states that were associated with good shots, and then provide neurofeedback to the users so they could learn to identify and replicate brain patterns.
The system, called the Accelerated Peak Performance Trainer, involves the user wearing EEG sensors that measure brain signals and provide real-time feedback through a vibrating motor attached to their neck. When the subject achieves an optimal state for the task in hand, the motor stops buzzing. “We could improve performance by a factor of two,” says Berka.
As part of the project, which also looked at the brain patterns of successful military leaders, Berka met David Waldman, a professor at Arizona State University’s Carey School of Business and Pierre Balthazard, now the dean of the School of Business at St Bonaventure University in New York State. Together, they decided to take the military work and apply it to the business world. “The military needs their leaders to be extremely adaptable, flexible, creative, ethical and moral, as well as being able to deal with a variety of global environments,” says Berka. “It’s exactly the same issues that the business schools have been studying.”
Now, Berka, Waldman, and Balthazard are working with colleagues at the Esade Business School in Barcelona, Spain, to identify brain signals that are linked to successful business leadership traits.
Of course, using neurofeedback to train marksmanship, a basic skill, is more complicated than identifying complex human behavior, like leadership, but Berka and her colleagues figured that they could identify brain patterns for specific traits, like empathy, which are believed to help make leaders effective.
That’s where neurofeedback comes in: leaders may not know what they’re doing wrong, or when they’re doing it wrong, but like the marksmen who can be taught when their brain state equates with taking a good shot, these corporate leader can be fitted with EEG caps, and then trained to get their brains to act like good leaders. “Often times leaders don’t know what to do,” says Waldman. “One of the theories we have is they don’t know what to do because their brains are not appropriately wired for leadership.”