The Neurobiology of Leadership: Wisdom in the Workplace

by Patrick B. Williams, Ph.D.

Effective business leaders make balanced use of intelligence and creativity. Some leaders keep their business on track by toeing the line and intelligently keeping order without making waves. Others are more disruptive and affect significant change and innovation by turning their cultures upside down. The first strategy risks stagnation, the second risks disorder, while both may lead to eventual problems. Between these two strategies lies the prudent application of creativity and intelligence in the execution of wise leadership. Fortunately, research in psychology and neuroscience is increasingly clarifying the boundaries of wisdom and its execution in everyday life and can help us determine how wisdom can be cultivated to improve organizations.

A large part of wisdom research, and particularly early work in psychology, was conducted in the 1970s and ‘80s by a group of German psychologists led by Paul Baltes. The Berlin group described wisdom largely as rich expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life (1). While pragmatic knowledge is essential to wise decision-making, a more complete picture of wisdom also takes into account other factors, such as perspective taking, value relativism, emotional self-regulation and comfort in the face of ambiguity. For example, American psychologist Robert Sternberg described wisdom as a balance of interpersonal, intrapersonal and extra personal interests (3).

A still broader view of wisdom and decision-making takes into account multiple interacting psychological and neurobiological systems, including higher-order cognition and emotional and reward processing. In a review of the neuroscience literature (1), Drs. Meeks and Jeste of the UCSD Department of Psychiatry and Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging identified five pillars of wisdom and their neurobiological bases including:

  • Prosocial attitudes and behaviors. Taking a positive attitude toward others and being prosocial is considered a fundamental component of wisdom. A leader may be adept at taking on the perspectives of others and acting intelligently on perspective taking, but without the ability to rise above short-term selfish impulses, leaders can create long-term negative effects on business relations and corporate culture. Prosocial attitudes and behaviors are facilitated by 1. the coordination of frontal cortical regions of the brain associated with executive functioning, 2. detection of conflict between expectations and reality, and 3. ability of these regions to regulate deeper emotional and reward processing.

  • Pragmatic knowledge of life. Wise decisions are formed by life experiences and knowledge pertaining to the fundamental pragmatics of life. Knowledge can be gained both from reflecting on others’ experiences, as well as on memories from one’s past and forms a cornerstone of social and moral decision-making. In this sense, leaders become wiser through effective reflection and by working with mentors who lead with the qualities described here. Like prosocial behavior, this dimension of wise decision-making depends largely on frontal cortical regions associated with moral decision-making.

  • Emotional homeostasis. Taking on the perspectives and values of others can lead to discomfort and negative emotions, particularly when they conflict with personally held beliefs. Making decisions in the pursuit of wisdom requires the ability to mentally reframe a situation in order to moderate personal emotion. In taking on the values and beliefs of others, emotion must be under the control of cognition, rather than the allowing emotions to run the show. Emotional homeostasis relies on the control of relatively automatic emotional and fear processing regions of the brain by higher-level cortical control networks.

  • Reflection and self-understanding. Wisdom depends on the ability to reflect on the experiences and points-of-view of self and others. This kind of reflection leads to understanding others’ beliefs and motivations, as well as to a deeper understanding of oneself. Wisdom helps overcome self-serving behavior and develops the ability of leaders to walk in someone else’s shoes. There is a great deal of overlap among the neural networks associated with the different components of wisdom. Self and other reflection relies heavily on frontal, but also on temporal cortical regions associated with differentiating the self from others and with moral sensitivity.

  • Value relativism. Value relativism includes the ability to understand a variety of values, beliefs and skills in handling the ambiguity created by this variety. When decisions involve people from diverse backgrounds, leaders must be able to accept a range of values and to be comfortable with perspectives and positions that are different from their own. Value relativism relies on the more exterior portions of the frontal cortex (thought to be evolutionarily more recent) associated with effortful reasoning strategies as well as the top-down control of emotions.

These five pillars help translate the basic science into practical principles that point toward ways of assessing and developing practical wisdom. A quick first step includes reflecting on personal capability in each of the five areas and working on one or two simple improvements that would have the greatest impact. Kintla’s TripleRC tools help as leaders learn to:

a)  Recognize. “Notice and name” emotions and sense signs of overload, confusion, distraction, anger and frustration for self and others.

b)  Regulate. Shift cognition to the upper regions of the brain and improve our focus and ability to innovate.  We can do this through top-down (thinking differently) or bottom-up (relaxing, walking, meditating) strategies.

c)  Reflect. Take previously learned facts, concepts and experiences and put them together in unique and novel ways. During reflection, multiple streams of knowledge are synthesized, patterns recognized and creative inspiration realized. The reflective process can be minutes, seconds or milliseconds long.

d)  Change. Act on our reflection by doing things differently. The ability and motivation to act on a good idea and shift old habits for new patterns and daily operating rhythms are critical to applying wisdom in practical ways to improve leadership impact.

References

  1. Baltes, P. B., & Staudinger, U. M. (2000). Wisdom: A metaheuristic to orchestrate mind and virtue towards excellence. American Psychologist, 55, 122-136.

  2. Meeks, T. W., & Jeste, D. W. (2009). Neurobiology of Wisdom: A literature overview. Archives of General Psychiatry, 66, 355-365.

  3. Sternberg, R. J. (1998). A balance theory of wisdom. Review of General Psychology, 2, 347-365.