As the saying goes, some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Now a new study claims to have proven the theory that great leaders such as Sir Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher are all born – not made.
Research by a leading military academic claims to have put the debate on whether it is nature or nurture which creates greatness to bed after finding the most effective really are a breed apart, and have brains that are wired differently to most.
The discovery could revolutionise how organisations assess and develop leaders, with brain scans being used to identify those with the ‘leadership gene’ early and train them accordingly.
It seems the most successful have more grey matter in places that control decision making and memory, giving them a vital edge when it comes to making the right call.
Management expert Professor Sean Hannah, of Wake Forest University in the United States, said: ‘Once we have confirmed how the brain works in these leaders, we can create an ‘expert’ profile.
‘This profile can help us develop brain training methods to enhance brain functioning in leaders, such as the neurofeedback techniques that have been successfully used with elite athletes, concert musicians and financial traders.’
Scans of 103 volunteers from the US Military Academy at West Point, ranging in rank from officer cadet to major, found neural networks in the frontal and prefrontal lobes of those deemed ‘leaders’ were different from the rest.
These areas of the brain are associated with self-regulation, decision making and memory.
The study was published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Applied Psychology.
The officers, 87 of whom were men, were defined as being more psychologically complex if they had a more diverse sense of their own abilities and accomplishments as leaders.
In addition to a series of questions, and physical and mental tests, half underwent ‘brain mapping’ – a quantitative electroencephalography scan.
Using electrodes placed on 19 different locations on subjects’ heads, researchers were able to track activity in particular areas of the brain while the participant was at rest.
Researchers also tested leadership and decision-making abilities in a hypothetical tactical military expedition.
The participants had to lead their unit to interact with hostile and non-hostile civilians, enemy forces, the media and, eventually, the shooting down of a U.S. helicopter during an international humanitarian relief mission in Africa.
Former military officers with significant experience in these types of situations rated the officers’ responses to the scenario based on their adaptability, situational awareness and decisions.
Leaders who had a more complex sense of their leadership skills and greater neurological complexity were found to be more adaptive and effective leaders in these scenarios.
Prof Hannah, a retired Colonel with 26 years of experience in the U.S. Army, said the results are a step toward finding out how effective and adaptable leaders not only think and act, but how their brains are wired to lead.