Your Brain Is Hardwired To Make You One Type Of Leader–Can You Overcome It?

New findings suggest that our brain’s analytical and social networks are hardwired to cancel each other out. Fortunately, there is a way for leaders to toggle successfully between the two.

Your Brain Is Hardwired To Make You One Type Of Leader–Can You Overcome It?
[Image: Flickr user Ryan Somma]

Your monthly performance metrics are due and you’ve got to focus. But your team is hovering, they need feedback for the first phase of a new project. Can you turn away from the spreadsheet and offer something constructive feedback on a new creative project? The answer: it depends.


It turns out that our brains have two distinct networks that align with two different leadership styles:

1. The task-positive network (TPN) kicks in when it’s time to get things done, like a drill sergeant.
2. The default-mode network (DMN) is believed to be activated when we’re being introspective or chewing on an ethical decision.

Effective leadership depends on being able to switch from one to the other seamlessly in the moment.

But years of management studies indicate that instead of flexing between the two, bosses tend to fall into one mode of operating, rendering them stuck and their teams ineffective. Put simply, the task master’s leanings can inhibit innovation while the relationship-oriented leader can lack focus and fall short of goals.

Two Mental Networks, One Big Challenge

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University led by management expert Richard Boyatzis and cognitive neuroscientist Tony Jack looked at MRIs as they related to these long-established leadership styles in a recently published paper appearing in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

In Jack’s experiments, MRIs were used to record brain activity while participants did social or analytic tasks. The social tasks required them to answer questions about the beliefs and attitudes of the characters in text or videos. Then, they had to solve science puzzles in physics videos or text passages. For a rest period, they were told to stare at a fixed point.


The result: when the TPN was in play, it deactivated the DMN and vice versa. Ever notice how the pressure of a deadline tends to make us bark at someone who might just be stopping by to see how we’re getting on? Toggling between the two modes, therefore, is easier said than done, the findings indicate.

It’s not impossible, though. “Both are useful,” Boyatzis underscores, “We get stuck because of socialization.”

Nature and Nurture

The way Boyatzis sees it, patterns can take hold long before someone hits the management track. He recalls how, despite his social engagement in high school, his love of science married with popular culture’s focus on space exploration indelibly marked him as a nerd. “You start to talk to yourself about this stuff and it is hard to slow down,” he explains, “Then if you get reinforcement it’s pretty hard to shake.”

Then, there are MBA programs which Boyatzis observes are heavy on the accounting, statistics, and other financial analytics courses. A leadership course might be thrown in, he says, but only by studying cases, not dealing with real people.

By the time someone is rising up the ranks in the real world, Boyatzis says they’re at risk because most companies don’t have a very enlightened way they view general management. That’s when reinforcement and rewards play into developing leaders who lean more heavily to one side. He says companies that have historically put too much emphasis on the balance sheet are particularly guilty of developing lopsided management. “Show me someone who opens a meeting with financials and I’ll show you an ineffective leader,” he argues.

Both Sides Now

There is evidence to suggest the pendulum might be swinging away from elevating that behavior. Observing the amount of press devoted to emotional and spiritual issues, Boyatzis says, is not happenstance. “People are hungry for meaning, they want to know they make a difference.”


Boyatzis believes that increasing functional capabilities in both networks could make it easier to switch back and forth, and make for a more well-rounded leader. He suggests that companies stop siloing people and move them through different functions of the business. Shifting responsibilities from accounting to HR balances the social and analytic sides of the brain’s networks.

A less radical approach would be like one hospital system’s example he observed. The leader surrendered 10 minutes of every hour-long meeting to stories about patients. The focus then shifts to the people they are serving, a tactic that makes staff feel proud to be part of the organization. “In the 10th minute when he goes into the financials, people have an open mind,” Boyatzis concludes.

As for the dilemma presented at the beginning of this piece, Boyatzis says it can be as simple as structuring your schedule to avoid having to perform socially immediately after doing something with a heavy emphasis on analytics. Using meditation techniques to reset in the moment can also be helpful, he says, to ensure “personal sustainability.”

It’s essential to have sustainable leadership, Boyatzis contends: “People don’t want to be human resources.”


Neuroscience of Effective Leadership


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.