Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage, by Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm and Paul Brown

A manual for ambitious executives is dangerously close to spreading neuromyths, says Steven Rose

February 12, 2015

In 1936, Dale Carnegie published his famous self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People. It promised to show readers, using the principles of psychology, how to improve their earning power, increase influence, become better executives and win more clients. Some 80 years on, Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm and Paul Brown are offering a somewhat similar prescription, although now it is based not on mere psychology but on the “hard science” of the brain. Neuromania, as gerontologist Raymond Tallis has called it, is undoubtedly the fashion of the moment. Authors and publishers, not to mention snake-oil salespersons, clearly see some added value in claiming to be speaking with its authority. So how does Neuroscience for Leadership, with its somewhat laboured subtitle, improve on Carnegie?

The book has two intertwined theses: first, that the reader can improve his (mainly, sic) leadership potential by learning more about how his brain works; and second, that the brain itself can be analogised to a modern corporation, in which one region above all, the prefrontal cortex, can be regarded as its CEO. The authors, who describe themselves as executive coaches from neuroscience, leadership learning and organisational psychology, respectively, address their twin theses in 12 overlapping chapters. As they confess, they have not tried to “homogenise” their text, resulting in a lack of coherence that their own firm warnings to potential leaders would seem to contraindicate.

So how, according to the authors, does the brain work? Our brains, they say, “are us”, although “we also shape our brains”. But if we are our brains, who is this apparently autonomous “we” doing the shaping? Untroubled by this deep philosophical paradox, they rush on enthusiastically, albeit often cavalierly in regard to evidence. Thus it came as a surprise to this neuroscientist to learn that I could improve the workings of my prefrontal cortex through focused attention and practice, and in doing so optimise my leadership potential. The brain, they assert, works by chemistry – more than 100 different chemicals are at work in the brain. At this point I began to wonder about the authors’ claimed neuroscientific credentials; the actual figure is likely to be closer to 100,000. But hey, what do three orders of magnitude matter when the message is that these chemicals not only work just like petrol and oil in a car engine, but also that their interactions are “exactly the same in modern executive life”? The key actors in this chemical saga are apparently neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, and hormones such as testosterone and cortisol; ah yes, of course, sex and stress. And when it comes to sex, men are more driven and successful the higher their testosterone levels, although too much stress is bad for their cortisol and might lead to heart attacks, while women – well, they are less driven, but better at multitasking because they have more fibres in their corpus callosum.

Be reassured; despite the testosterone problem, women can still be great leaders, such as Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund (Margaret Thatcher, however, was too controversial). Be less reassured, though, when they cite as male role models leaders such as Sir Terry Leahy, ex-chief of Tesco, whose success was achieved by attaching, rather than attracting customers (now rapidly detaching themselves) and the trigger-happy athlete Oscar Pistorius, who said “every race is won or lost in the head”.

Analogies have an important part to play in scientific theorising – the heart does work much like a mechanical pump, for example. But analogising brains to leaders in corporate enterprises does not enhance our understanding of either. Indeed, most of the advice the authors give to potential leaders – about being confident, having plans, being flexible, innovative, resilient, simulating empathy and so on, along with little checklists of how well they are doing, culminating in a “brain Olympics” challenge, with bronze, silver and gold awards – could be given without bothering with dubious references to assumed brain mechanisms. Texts such as this are in serious danger of propagating what in a recent report on neuroscience the Royal Society categorised as neuromyths.

If this is the quality of advice that executive coaches give their leadership-hungry audiences, it may help to explain the manifest failures of our nation’s industrial and political leadership over the past decades. But it does make me question what such a book is doing in a serious publisher’s list.

Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage

By Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm and Paul Brown
Palgrave Macmillan, 256pp, £22.99
ISBN 9781137466853 and 6877 (e-book)
Published 11 February 2015

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