Based on the Evidence
What Is Neuroleadership?
By Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis
We in the UK are finally emerging from a rather long and cold winter. The sun is showing up before we arrive at the office and overall there is a renewed spring in the step of my fellow commuters on the 6.40 a.m. train to London. The coming of spring also heralds the start of the conference season and I am sitting here preparing to give a keynote next week and wondering what my audience will find most exciting in the recent coaching research.
On reflection, my most stimulating reading this year has not been in coaching at all but in our related disciplines. The learning and development literature has always provided rich pickings in the past and psychology is a constant source of insight, but there are other literatures which have some rich contributions to make to our practice. One field in particular has been mentioned by every doctoral student I have interviewed this year: neuroscience, the study of the brain and its influence on the mind.
My first reaction to the evolving area of neuroleadership was one of scepticism: "Oh no, not another bandwagon claiming to be the answer to life, the universe, and coaching." However, upon mentioning neuroleadership on a researcher discussion board, I was met with such an extreme and mixed reaction that my interest was immediately raised. Yes, there is always a temptation to flock to any new area that by its very name implies 'scientific credibility,' but how does it extend our understanding? The researcher in me was awakened and I started to ask "What's going on here?"
A little context is useful to start with: Neuroscience has been an important area of medical inquiry since the first trepanning 'operations' in early civilizations. Its discoveries have informed medical and therapeutic interventions for centuries. The tools it had at its disposal were fairly blunt (sorry for the pun!) and required elegant research on injured or diseased brains to come as far as it has. The results have had impacts not only in therapy but in the learning and development arena. Good training designs have used neuroscientific research to provide optimum learning environments for their participants. The real explosion in interest in recent years has come from the development of noninvasive probes for assessing brain function. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and related spectrometries have allowed a glimpse into the brain as it works. This dramatic improvement in the 'probe' has illuminated a whole new area of work-that of the functioning of the healthy brain in real time as it deals with stress, emotions, and everything life has to throw at it. The result is an upsurge in researchers choosing to work in the field and a burst of creative activity in identifying applications. Neuroleadership and neuromarketing are but two. Research is starting to map the physiological bases of many of our human behaviors and preferences.
This explosion in activity and creativity is occurring at the intersection between two disciplines: neuroscience and leadership. As social learning theorist Etienne Wenger1 reminds us, it is at the 'interface' between two communities that creativity can be unleashed, but also where there is most discord as new paradigms emerge. There will always be detractors from both sides of the interface who feel that those working at the intersection are not doing justice to their original discipline and that multidisciplinary work is somehow of less worth.
There has been good reason for such caution in the past when there has not been a full collaboration between researchers from both sides and a new program or model is launched without being validated by research. Often, the interpretation of the research has been inappropriate to the new application and 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing' has proved to be true.
So we as researchers need to keep a critical eye on what is happening, as there is a temptation to be blinded by the unfamiliar science and to let our enthusiasm run away with itself. Luckily, I have some background in Magnetic Resonance Imaging and have been able to read the literature from both sides of the neuroleadership interface. The field looks promising and I look forward to seeing how it will develop.
But how can we critically engage with this type of multidisciplinary work in the future so we as a profession don't go down a blind alley, but maintain appropriate standards of evidence?
Interrogating my own criteria, I have come up with the following points:
- There should be a clear collaboration between researchers from both fields so each is able to 'police' the other.
- The research progress is stepwise and cautious, NOT a giant leap, i.e., the claims for the approach do not outstrip the evidence and you are not being asked to believe that one experiment with mice in a laboratory means that all humans do XYZ.
- Good research practice is observed in all publications and evidence is provided from both sides.
- The researchers are clear about when the approach doesn't work as well as when it does. For me, this shows real authority in a piece of work.
This isn't an exhaustive list but one to prompt your own reflections. Have fun at the neuroscience-leadership interface, but let's keep it real and relevant.
David Rock has been the major leader in neuroleadership and his book with Linda Page is highly readable and relevant:
Rock, D. and Page, L. Coaching with the Brain in Mind: Foundations for Practice (Wiley: NJ, 2009).
1Wenger, E., Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (Cambridge University Press, 1998).