Neurobiz Podcast | AIIR Consulting

Listen to a Panel Discussion on Neuroscience and Leadership featuring AIIR CEO Dr. Jonathan Kirschner

Listen to a fascinating panel discussion featuring AIIR CEO Dr. Jonathan Kirschner, renowned neuroscientists Drs. Michael Platt and Zab Johnson, and a panel of experts from around the globe, about what new discoveries in neuroscience can reveal about how pressure changes how we lead.

Complete Transcript

Elizabeth (Zab) Johnson, Ph.D.: 

This is our fourth NeuroBiz Now gathering and, you know, just as a means of background or intent for this is, you know, for this to be a weekly video conference discussion series with the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative where each session focuses on a topic that has neuroscience and business implications of broad interest but also is relevant to current events. 

 

So today’s topic aims to explore the neuroscience of leadership, a big topic area like we always seem to hit, so I think this will be a really fantastic discussion. We’ve pulled together a really fantastic group of panelists for today’s discussion, and I will introduce them briefly and then pass over the “so-called mic” soon and begin the formal program. But just as a reminder, the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative is here to bring together brain, science, and business in an effort to improve business, drive new discoveries and applications, and enhance the education of future leaders.

 

Michael Platt is the faculty director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative and he will serve as a co-moderator with me. He’s a professor of marketing, neuroscience, and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School. I’m Zab Johnson I’m the executive director and senior fellow for the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative and we will serve together as the co-moderators for today’s panel discussion and the way that the program works best in our experience is to let each of the panelists give a brief overview of their perspective on the topic, and then while that’s happening if you end up having questions as attendees and audience members, what we would suggest is that you start to put those into the chat, which you’ll find on the settings part of the right part of your screen and that will allow us to know what your question is but actually to create, you know, the idea of connecting and human contact in these difficult times. When your question is relevant to our discussion I will actually invite you to come on video and on camera and ask your question directly. But I will moderate those so sometimes, you know, it takes us a while to get to the questions and so if you put them into the chat window it not only gives us an idea of their relevance and whom you might be addressing your questions to, and when would it would be the most appropriate for us to ask those questions. But, it also allows you to remember what your questions might have been if it has taken a little while for us to get to them so that’s generally, you know, how we’ll run things. 

 

So, to introduce today’s fantastic panelists we have Mike Useem who is the professor of management and faculty director of the Wharton Center for Leadership and change management. We have Christian Ruff who’s the professor of neuroeconomics and decision neuroscience at the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich. Thalia Wheatley is a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth and Jonathan Kirchner who’s the CEO and founder of AIIR Consulting which is a leadership development coaching company and they are also a corporate partner of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative.

Alright, so I’ll get us started. I think we’ll start with Mike Useem. Why don’t you give us a little bit of intro with your vast experience in leadership and change in behavior?

 

Mike Useem:

Well, Zab thank you and hello everybody. Happy noonday or in the case of Christian it must be around 6:00 p.m. I see a few faces there are people I know and I just want to do a quick shout out to Katherine, I see you, Len, Richard Marcus, Lou Padulo. Great to have people we know. I see a nice wave there from Richard; so anyway nice to see you. 

A couple of thoughts on the moment, I’m gonna pick up on the theme, the neuroscience of leadership, by referencing the moment we’re in that we all think about pretty much all day, certainly at news time, to make a very short argument, and that is we are riveted by the expression or sometimes the shortcomings and the leadership that we see. Maybe take it either way at the White House, the governor of New York and I think that’s because research reminds us unequivocally that leadership becomes more vital when there’s uncertainty and number two leadership is a collective skill and not an individual skillset. I’ll come back to the latter in a few minutes but let’s take the first. I think the fact that we know from research and intuitively the research that leadership rather is really vital when in this case the world seems to be going to hell it leads to the following totally obvious question:  what exactly is it that we’re looking for when we see the governor of New York speed or the president the United States speak and from my own intuitive experience and lots of research to go with it I would say keep in mind three absolutely vital capacities or skill sets if you will. Number one: to think strategically. Number two: to communicate persuasively. And number three: to act decisively. 

 

My maybe illustrative case in point for thinking strategically goes back a couple years to our last enormous crisis and that is the financial setback of ‘08-’09 and having spent time back then and more recently with the chief executive then of Vanguard, he stepped down, but Bill McNab ran Vanguard as CEO for ten years. He came in just before ‘08-’09 came crashing down and he made a decision, it was controversial at the time, to cut salaries cut expenses but lay nobody off. It was next year for an asset manager like Vanguard that was extremely tough to achieve but he theorized he was thinking strategically that as the market came back, and it would and did, having people committed to the firm and on the payroll, at the firm, he would have in place what was going to be required when there was later a huge flow of assets into Vanguard’s hands. And that’s one reason that Vanguard is pushing six trillion dollars in assets now because Bill McNab was thinking strategically at a time when his thinking had it not been quite that strategic might have headed in a different direction. 

 

I’m gonna skip illustrating, we can come back to it. The other two elements: communicating persuasively and acting decisively, but let me address one of the themes that Zab and Michael have put together for our discussion and that is the extent to which these are natural kind of inborn skills built into our wiring or acquired. For my two cents at this moment, let me just make an argument to put a stake in the ground, some have a head start at all three but all three are “strengthenable”, if that’s even a word, by the people that we work with, not to mention ourselves. The last point I want to finish and then I’ll turn it back to Zab here, with is the fact that leadership is not only about you thinking persuasively, or bill McNab thinking persuasively, it’s about all of us and one of the other great research findings of my field is that when leadership is collective, not single, when it’s the team and not the individual it works much better, has much greater consequence, and that’s why to finish off and on this point we have seen without any direction from the White House or the governor’s office or a mayor’s office many people stepping forward sometimes running small restaurants maybe a Medical Center maybe it’s just a neighborhood that they take some responsibility for and thinking strategically, communicating persuasively, and acting decisively so there it is a couple of thoughts. So Zab, back to you.

 

Elizabeth (Zab) Johnson, Ph.D.: 

Thanks very much Mike. So I think that’s a really nice lead up of the ideas around leadership so we’ll turn now to Christian Ruff who has, you know, a really long experience really diving into the neuroscience of not just decision making, but actually, you know, the indicators from a neuroscience perspective. What can you bring to the table around what neurosciences can tell us about leadership Christian? 

 

Christian Ruff:

Yeah, and thanks first for putting together this great symposium. I’m actually glad that I can basically pitch my ideas directly after what we heard now, because the question was asked what is it that we are looking for in leaders? And that’s exactly the question that we try to examine in a recent study actually with neuroscience methods. So the hope is that, which also chimes in with what we heard before, is that we can really learn something about some elementary skills that leaders have to show, and that have to be set up in their brain, and I think that’s essential for assessment of course. So identifying people who have a natural inborn talent, but I also fully agree with what was said before: training is essential here. We need to know what it is that we have to train. 

 

So, in order to and find out what that could be from a neuroscience perspective and experiment we actually invited participants to our lab, and we knew whether these people actually were good leaders in real life. So, how do we know that? Well that’s a strike of good luck that we’re in Switzerland where all the males have to do several years of military service and they can rise through the ranks. So, we have real-life measures of how much people actually take on leadership challenges and actually also succeed in doing so. And then we actually measure decision making. So, I just want to point out there’s obviously many different things that leaders have to get right, and we heard three just now. But, we focus in particular on decision-making style and how your brain processes the world and uses that to guide your behavior and that’s what we look at. 

 

And we want to see whether there’s particular characteristics here that make good leaders and the way that we do it is that we have people take choices that have real financial consequences. So, they participate in lotteries they can win a certain amount, lose a certain amount; there’s uncertainty associated. We heard that that’s crucial right? And people may know what the probabilities are or they may even be global uncertainty. They may not know what the probabilities are. And then we can look whether there’s anything particular about decision making styles of people that differentiates good leaders from bad leaders. And I’m gonna tell you, there’s nothing in these individual decisions. The good leaders are not those who are very risk-taking or not very risk-taking. They’re not people who are afraid of losses are not afraid of losses like all of that, our experiments suggest you can discount. However in our experiments, we also look at leadership directly. How do we do that? We have people take these choices either just for themselves or for a group of people. So all of a sudden, they have to take responsibility for others; take leadership. And we can look now, how do the brains of people process this information when they lead, versus when they just decide for themselves. What is it about these differences that differentiate good leaders from bad leaders? And something that was quite interesting here is the good leaders were not people who actually wanted to take a lot of choices themselves or delegate to the group or who actually involved the others in their choices. 

 

All leadership styles were present in the good leaders. The main characteristic that we found in good leaders was that they took those choices always in the same way, no matter whether they chose for themselves or whether they chose for the group. So, you could have very careful leaders, good leaders. And they were careful when they took choices for themselves and for the group. You could have people who basically were very risk-taking but the good ones always did it in the same way, no matter whether it was just for themselves or for others. And it was quite striking that this was the only thing that predicted whether people actually were good leaders in real life. There were also some neural processes associated, but I won’t bore you with these. But, I just want to put into this round that I think the recent events have really shown that this is not just something that makes people good leaders but we look for that in good leaders. And I noticed that when I saw that in a clip of Angela Merkel, who’s hardly a very charismatic leader, went viral and that clip basically just showed her explaining in a very calm manner what her criteria are for deciding when to reopen the country. And she mentioned transmission indices and so forth but she just very calmly explained: this is how we have to take the decision and that’s how we do it. 

 

And people seem fascinated by this and I think it is because we realize whether someone has principles and sticks to these no matter whether they decide for themselves or for the group. And I think there are many examples also of what people see as bad leadership at the moment where we just get a nagging suspicion that people choose not to solve a problem by some established criteria that they apply to themselves, but to follow other other aims, and I don’t have to name any names here. And yeah, so that’s, I think what our research puts into this round. Again, I want to repeat, I’m not saying that there’s not many other things that leaders need to get right. I fully agree with what we heard before. I think I know what Talia’s gonna say and I also agree with this and it’s just important that we all keep putting these things together and try to see what so to say the skill set that good leaders need. And I think our research contributes one of these skills. 

 

Elizabeth (Zab) Johnson, Ph.D.: 

Great, thank you very much! So you pointed us to Talia so I’ll let her go ahead and speak next.

 

Thalia Wheatley:

Thanks Zab and Michael for putting this together. Christian, I’m not sure what you thought I was gonna say, but I’m Thalia Wheatly and most of my career has been studying social intelligence or how people understand other people’s thoughts, feelings and actions. I use a variety of techniques; I don’t know how much of it we’ll get into today but from neuroimaging, so fMRI, EEG, eye tracking, psychophysics, behavioral studies, cross-cultural research. And I’ve been using all of these techniques for a long time now, but up until about five years ago, I was studying social intelligence in the way psychologists and neuroscientists have always studied these things which is in the individual. So all of neuroscience if you think about it is about mapping the human brain in the singular, and I started to realize that we know very little about how brains interact, and yet we do this all the time. So there must be some purpose that we get together and our minds couple and we influence each other.

And leadership, as I think Mike put so well, is collective. So if we want to understand leadership, I think we have to understand the collective brain and how people interact and influence and shape each other’s minds. So, I’m one of the few neuroscientists, along with Michael Platt here I think, that is invested in moving neuroscience toward an interactive approach. 


And I want to tell you just a little bit about a study that we just completed. We didn’t set out to study leadership; we didn’t give people leadership questionnaires, or it wasn’t the intent, but what we did do is we took people who are highly influential in a real world social network. The real world social network we used are Tuck MBA students. Tuck is the Business School at Dartmouth. We took the entire cohort: 256 of them, and we graphed out their social network and we took people who were highly central in that network. Now, highly central people are people who are well-connected to well-connected others. They influence, they control information flow. And we took them and we took other people that were less central, and I’m not sure I have time to go into the details of the study, it was a neuroscience study, but to give you a little summary of what we found and why I think there are implications for leadership: is that we found that people who are highly central in their real world social network are cognitively adaptable. So, they take on board other people’s ideas rather than dig in their heels. Most of the time in a group they are not the originators of the best idea, but they have a good nose for when they hear a good idea and they flex to others positions. I think this takes some degree of humility to have this kind of adaptability. But when they hit upon a good idea, wherever it comes from, not only do they change their own mind; and we showed that in terms of their neural activity, but they changed their own mind and they play an outsized role in uniting people around that idea and bending other people’s neural patterns around that common ground.

And the degree to which these people in particular talk in a group is directly predictive of how cohesive that group becomes, how much they achieve neural synchrony in the group. So these people don’t necessarily have the idea to start with, but they find that idea, they flex to it, they take it on board and then they champion and support that idea and the group becomes united around it. So I think that has implications for leadership. I think it dovetails with Mike Useem’s work a lot, but I’d be curious to know what people think of it. So this is the main study I’ve done that kind of touches upon the leadership idea.

Elizabeth (Zab) Johnson, Ph.D.: 

Great, thanks very much. All right so, I think now we’ll let Jonathan Kirschner get on and talk a little bit about, you know, what it is to work in the leadership capacity as a practitioner especially, you know, when people are really seeking now, you know, to define new ways of thinking about leadership during difficult times.

 

Jonathan Kirschner PsyD:

Thank you Zab, sure, and thank you so much for having me on this panel and it’s really cool to be, you know, on a panel with giants in our field. Perhaps I’m a bit pronounced in that I’m not a professor or a researcher, certainly a thinker, but can speak more to the applied nature of this work. And so I’m Jonathan Kirschner: a business psychologist and so I’ve trained clinically and organizationally and also the founder and CEO of AIIR Consulting. And our mission at AIIR Consulting is really to improve people’s lives through change and we think doing that through leadership is a pretty strategic way because leaders do have a disproportionate influence on a system and that we can help a leader become more effective and be their best self, then that’s going to really maximize the impact of the work we do. And so we do that practically through one-to-one executive coaching, team effectiveness, and leadership development services.

So I wanted to share just a few thoughts on sort of our understanding of leadership and, you know, where we are at right now. The way I would define or conceptualize leadership is that it’s a combination of behaviors that enable someone, ie the leader, to actualize or execute vision importantly through others. And I think that’s what differentiates a leader from say a contributor or a brilliant inventor. It’s that other piece, that piece around the collective that Mike was sharing about. And you know effective leaders are really good at it. The outcomes are achieved in a sustainable way, and not good leaders, or ineffective leaders, the outcomes tend to not get achieved, or if they are achieved they’re done so with a lot of collateral damage and risk that’s been taken. And so our core sort of belief around leadership, which I would think is fairly consistent among the panelists on this call, is it’s not necessarily a biological trait, but rather something that can be learned and cultivated and that’s really the foundation of our business. That’s what we do day in and day out at AIIR Consulting is really helping leaders change and shift their behavior to be their very best self. That’s not to say that nature can’t help, but but we do think a good bulk of this comes down to nurture, and specifically the domains that we think are important within leadership ourselves: how we manage our core energy, time management, productivity, our resilience, interpersonal leadership. So, how effectively are we navigating personal realm through emotional intelligence, relationship management, team leadership. So how do we harness the collective team to really accomplish and execute on the mission? And then something that we would call business leadership, which is sort of a strategy to get to that mission and driving change.

There’s not one silver bullet of leadership style, and that really speaks a lot to, I think, the situational leadership literature. And so to be a great leader in a turnaround situation is a lot different than being a great leader in a maintenance situation, which is much different than being a great leader in a high-growth situation. And so the skills and competencies required very much depend on the situation itself, and right now the situation we’re in is, you know, quite unprecedented. It is technically, I think, a crisis but you know we can think of this as an existential crisis that’s turning more into like an existential journey in figuring out what’s going on. 

 

The advice that we are giving leaders is to really adapt their behaviors to four core areas. And we call it “Be real. Be strong. Be generous and be multi-dimensional.” And so being real is all about authenticity, and being strong is all about resilience, and being generous; this is a time right now where compassionate leadership is extremely important. And then the piece on multi-dimensional; you know there are some great studies done – a great study done at Harvard around coming out of the recession. The ones high in leadership were the ones that didn’t go on the offense, didn’t go on the defense exclusively, but rather balanced the two and were able to take defensive measures, also aggressive measures. But nevertheless what would be considered offense and those are the companies that really thrive coming out of the financial crisis and that’s really the bit of advice we’re giving leaders today: how do you balance those two. It’s much harder to be multi-dimensional than uni-dimensional and the polarities cut across many domains. So how do we be really compassionate and empathic, but also drive the offense. And how do we focus on strategy and adaptability, but also drive change. These are the polarities that we need to reconcile and carry. It makes leadership probably more complex than ever, and yet that’s the task at hand that we’re seeing and also the opportunity. So I’ll stop there, but thank you Zab.

 

Elizabeth (Zab) Johnson, Ph.D.: 

Great thanks. So I have a question right off the bat, Talia, so you talked about these sort of –  and we’ve also received a question about this – but, you know, around the super influencers or the social brokers, you know, is there something that is sort of innate to their brains and to their minds that, you know, that leads them to that? Are they the most likely to be, you know, taking on the true leadership role, or is this, you know, something that is, you know, inherently just a really vital part of teamwork where it’s really hard to uncouple, you know, the team from what we traditionally think about leadership? 

 

Thalia Wheatley:

Right – I think I would love for the story to be, I would love if the data told us that if everybody talked an equal amount, everybody’s contribution was worth the same thing; that the best outcomes, the best synchrony, happened in those situations. We’re not seeing that. We’re seeing that a strong leader emerges and that person is almost certainly a person who has centrality in their actual social network, so there’s something about these people in particular that kind of guide a group and direct a group towards a common vision that’s really important. It’s not sort of everybody’s on equal footing necessarily; there is something about these  people. Now what it is? We don’t really know. We know that people who tend to hold highly central positions in their network have a kind of social flexibility. You mentioned social brokers, if you think about brokerage and a network – we have found in a completely different data set with eight cohorts of MBA students that the social brokers in those networks tend to be people who kind of adapt themselves to different others so there’s a social intelligence there that they’re able to take on the kind of mannerisms etcetera of the other person and adapt to them.

But beyond that, I’m not completely sure what makes someone become highly central. We just know that those people seem to have disproportionate influence on bending the trajectories of other minds. 

 

Michael Platt, PhD:

Thanks Talia, I just wanted to follow on that – as you mentioned we’ve also been using social network analyses to try to understand minds and how minds work together collectively and individually. And in our studies of non-human primates, our cousins, which gears so much of their biology and behavior with us, rhesus macaques, for example, they form highly complex interconnected social networks and we found that those monkeys, who are those brokers in the networks, who are really central that at least part of of that is genetic. So obviously, you know your position and network can’t be genetically determined, but the qualities that you have as an individual, so the what you bring to the table when you’re born in terms of your traits and your skills and your temperament somehow allow you know a particular monkey to become highly central and another monkey to not. And what’s really kind of remarkable about this is that if that monkey moves to another group, that monkey will attain a very similar kind of position.

So there’s something biological that confers those kinds of qualities on an individual – at least in terms of monkeys. Now it’s not a hundred percent of the genetic, you know, 100 percent of the variance is genetic, it’s you know, it’s more like 20% to 30%, but nevertheless, it suggests that there is a pretty strong biological component. 

 

I had a question before, sorry Christian I don’t want to cut you off.


Christian Ruff:

Yeah I just quickly wanted to ask Talia something as well because we’re at that topic. Did you also look whether the good leaders were also very flexible at taking on board ideas that they didn’t get in a social context? So does this really have something to do with being able to interact with others and take on good ideas of others and spread them in the network, or is it that they perhaps are just very intellectually flexible and able to see through different perspectives very well? So, like, have you looked at that as well? 

 

Thalia Wheatley:

We haven’t – it’s a great idea. We’ve only looked at – we’ve only taken people – and put them in these these social groups and we made them have to come to decisions under high uncertainty and that’s the very specific kind of context that we’ve been using but this is a great idea of whether or not this cognitive flexibility generalizes to all sorts of domains, but we haven’t yet looked at that.

Christian Ruff:
Yeah, because I mean one may wonder to what degree it has something to do with what we heard in the very first contribution thinking strategically – right – and I think thinking strategically really requires that you’re able to simulate many possible scenarios and think – what would happen if…? And so forth and I think one of the big questions in neuroscience, which I think we should also bring here always, is whether there are specific abilities that are only in the social domain or that really transcends many different domains right? And I think this particular one I really wonder to what degree that contributes to network centrality and leadership in that case. 

 

Mike Useem:

Hey Zab can I jump in? This is Mike I have a question for both Michael and Thalia here: Michael just I’m intrigued by the – well all your results, but one in particular that is a primate moves from group one to group two they have a head start when they come in to group two in terms of their centrality and their presence and the impact – having said that, do we also find – this is a genuine curiosity question – that they can grow in that new context if there’s purpose or incentives to grow? Can they take what they have, have a head star, and then grow?

And then over to Thalia: really interested to hear more about what you might call emotional contagion, the extent to which – and I’ll put it in a leadership framing here – if you’re with people who are prone to take charge, get out, make a difference, speak articulately; do people around the, really just as a product of emotional contagion, tend to become better when they see leaders in action around them at the art of leadership? But anyway, let’s go back to Michael and then over to Talia.

 

Michael Platt, PhD:

Yeah, thanks for the question Mike. I mean it’s a really interesting question, I mean how you measure growth in a non-human primate is a little bit tricky, but one of the things that we’re finding right now, as you may know, we’ve been studying a population of monkeys on an island off the coast of Puerto Rico for about twelve years now, and we’ve been studying their behavior and their biology, and of course as we are all aware Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and not only did it devastate the human population on the island, but devastated our primate population. And that’s a really interesting event to look at the changes that have transpired from before the hurricane to after. One of the things that we find is that, just like in humans, after this really you know intense, stressful event: monkeys seek out social support and those monkeys who are more central within the social network seem to be better at reaching out and making new connections with others. And so that’s a very new finding but it does suggest that you know even if you come into the game, you know, kind of already with a leg up that puts you in a better position to access more individuals which can also, you know, provide social support but also knowledge and other kinds of things like that.

So, you know like, the way I always put it for everything that we study; whether we’re talking about how we connect socially or you know our ability to kind of engage in divergent thinking everybody’s dial is set a little bit differently when they come to the table, but that dial can be turned, right? It’s just that you can take maybe somebody who is said to be seven and turn them to a ten, but maybe not as somebody who’s set at a three and take them to a ten. So there’s some dynamics there and that’s where the training and the growth can happen, but there’s only a limited range, right? Not everybody can be a ten, not everybody can be an Andrew Cuomo or an Angela Merkel as we’re all finding out unfortunately.

Mike Useem:
Great, thanks! And then Talia: on emotional contagion as a self-reinforcing helping us all rise up as better leaders: what do you think?

Thalia Wheatley:

That’s a great question! Well, we know that how your connectivity to the network really determines how, sort of, far and wide your ideas will spread, right? And one thing we’ve learned in the study that I told you about a little bit is that, I think this is in one of your papers Mike, that if your words don’t stick, you haven’t spoken, does that ring a bell? All right and these people, their words really stick, right? The words stick, they change people’s minds in the group and I’ve got to imagine that emotion works the same way: that people are not just paying attention to the words people say but their tone of voice, how they say it, and this probably also feeds into charisma: if you’re interested in that as a part of leadership. But sort of inspiring people both with your words and the way you convey those words in terms of your emotional tone I think both of those things have to go together. So, but I haven’t studied it, but I assume maybe other people on the panel have done some work in this area but I presume that leaders not only have a greater sort of ability to push the ideas further out in the network but emotions as well.

 

Mike Useem:

Great, thank you.

 

Michael Platt, PhD:

I have a question for everybody on the panel, and I, you know, may require kind of just stepping outside of your comfort zone; but my question is: why do we as human beings need leaders? Do we all feel an acute need right now for leadership? That seems very different from what we find in animals where there isn’t the same kind of leadership that we see in human beings, and I wonder if it’s you know the nature of our societies, the scale of societies, what might we learn from examining small-scale societies or different kinds of cultures? 

 

Mike Useem:

Michael, it’s a really good question because you’ve got us all kind of stalled out here, but I’m gonna begin with an example and then over to Christian and others here. Here’s my A case for that point: I’ve long used mountaineering as a metaphor for thinking about the world, and mountaineering expeditions – let’s make it to Mount Everest – I usually have a designated climbing leader and Hillary was not somebody else was on his expedition but the leader of that expedition, a guy named John Hunt, put together resources, people, Sherpas, got their weather right, and got two people to the summit way back in 1953. By contrast I have an example written about a group that showed up at base camp: wonderful to be there, spectacular, everybody’s read about it; and the person in charge – quote in charge – said “I don’t believe in leadership and everybody’s going to do what they’re really good at, which is to climb the mountain.” Well the next four or five days, it kind of was anarchy in that people decided to carry loads up to high camps at their own choosing in terms of time and destination, and I don’t think they got above camp too, not that two cases make the point, but isn’t it a matter of – and you raise like the baseline question – is leadership all that important? 

 

And I think the answer from example is yes and in a statistically great study done this past year of sport professional and collegiate sports teams: when you changed out the manager or the coach, whether it’s collegiate or the NFL or NBA, and everything else being equal, a person who brings a leadership skill set led to a better performing team. So we can get it anecdotally, we can get it statistically, but I love the question because it’s important to raise it. Why do we spend time on the topic and I think the answer is: we do for the following reasons. Anyway, sorry to go on so long about that. 

 

Christian Ruff:

Yeah, perhaps I can chime in and answer that from a biological point of view. So you actually ask, why do we need leaders, and animals don’t? I think it has to do with the fact that we have a very very wide array of behaviors that we can show, and we like to act together as a group. In fact this is why humans took over the world, because they can team up with genetically unrelated strangers and work together with the division of labor; everyone does different things, but the problem is – this is a very, very complex behavior to show, and there’s several things that we humans have evolved that animals don’t have to deal with that. One is social norms right? So we were very good at forming expectations of what we are to do in a particular situation because we couldn’t regulate every aspect of this team at all times. The problem is what do we do in situations for which we don’t have clear social norms where we don’t know what we are to do and I think that’s where leaders come in. That’s why we need leaders because not everyone on the team can basically decide what they’re going to do now, right? We need a direction here and if there’s no norms, we need someone and we even have norms for how we determine who that person is, right – Politics, elections, and so forth to basically tell the group what they ought to do.

But as with all social norms as well, and I think that’s what we’re seeing at the moment with democracy and politics when it’s dangerous, leadership requires content and acceptance right and yeah I think we’re really at a bit of a breaking point here, right? Where at least in some societies people feel that the direction that the group is headed in by the person designated to do it doesn’t actually correspond to what the group actually wants, right? And I think that’s when the problem starts. So, I think leadership is our solution to the problem that we are too free to do too many things because it’s so powerful as a group but it’s also our curse in a way right because leaders can lead us to interactions that we don’t want and that’s when troubles start: when revolutions happen and so forth. But, let’s hope it doesn’t get to there.

Jonathan Kirschner PsyD:
Christian, I love what you’re sharing, if I could piggyback off you and Michael, awesome question… 

It makes me think about what is sort of distinctive between humans and animals and I think to one, its complexity, Christian like to your point, and the other I think there’s something about humans that we have the inclination to be ambitious. So, like the monkeys in Puerto Rico aren’t necessarily scheming for how they’re going to take over the rest of the Caribbean, they are just content on how we get to, you know, maybe maximize banana output and be effective in my own sort of radius. And so somehow I think the combination of those two variables, and maybe there’s more, but the complexity and our ambition, you know, presents just an exponential array of challenges and opportunities and somehow, maybe this is where evolutionary psychology comes in, and somehow to adapt to those conditions need people to help navigate that complexity and help maximize the opportunity relative to the ambitious pursuit.

Curious what others are…that’s where my philosophizing goes.

 

Michael Platt, PhD:

Yeah I mean I love those thoughts from both of you. Actually, I’d love to hear the two of you riff on the ideas that I think most of you brought up which is authenticity and consistency. So, you know, are those related, you know, in terms of behavior, and are they related in terms of what we know about the brain? 

 

Christian Ruff:

Well I mean authenticity and consistency are ideally related but sometimes they aren’t. You can have someone who’s very authentic that changes their mind all the time and perhaps even is authentic about applying double-standards when different situations happen; and I think we are just very sensitive to detect cheaters: people who basically break out of the social contracts that we have that assign roles to humans in societies, and I think when it comes to our leaders, we’re really mainly actually looking for for consistency because the problem is that people can say a lot, but actions speak louder than words. So, I think we’re more sensitive to observing people do different things in different settings and then believing that perhaps they’re not actually putting their money where their mouth is.

 

Jonathan Kirschner PsyD:

Yeah, I would piggyback off of Christian, you know, there’s consistency and authenticity and this could be a polarity. And I think it’s important to be consistent and at the same time it’s important to adapt to the conditions. What enables you to have both is humility. And those who don’t have humility, I mean we can look at you know, there’s definitely a lot of examples of that right now, they’re not going to be able to manage that multi-mentality between consistency and adaptability so well. (inaudible from 45:03-45:21) Do I want to follow leaders who say it’s okay to be human…and who’s able to not only set the conditions for psychological safety and and interpersonal effectiveness but also demonstrate and model vulnerability; which I think is something very important right now. That’s the leader that I want to follow and I think from an emotional contagion standpoint, being able to tap into that kind of leadership right now is going to, you know, arguably maximize that leader’s influence. I’m curious with what your thoughts are, Talia on that, given your research.

 

Thalia Wheatley:

Yeah, I think this idea of sort of getting out of your own way…Look when we first started this study, we thought naively, I think the panel wouldn’t have this hypothesis, but our starting hypothesis was that highly central people will pull everybody else to their own initial starting position; that they will bend other people’s minds to their own and that’s what it means to be a central influential person. And it was just found the complete opposite result, right, that the people who were highly central in their network were able to take on board other people’s mental states and then rally other people around to those. So, that’s definitely flexibility, its adaptability, and you have to I think have a degree of humility in order to let go of ego, right, your idea wasn’t the best one but you can recognize who had the best idea and champion that, and when you speak people trust that your contribution is worth listening to. Right, so that all, I think, fits with this idea of being humble, but also being authentic.

 

Mike Useem:

I’m going to add a quick, very brief, thought and then I think we’re gonna open this up in a second. And that is if you are running a startup and you have five employees, we can pretty much tell them what to do, and like the deal is clear, it’s very personal, but think Marriott International: 175,000 employees and the chief executive about a month ago went on an internal videocast about five minutes, it’s on the web it’s great to look at, and he did what I think we’re talking about here: which is to help people make sense of the world they’re all working in, understand the purpose of Marriott International, remind themselves of why they’re in business, and in that sense in a kind of, call it a cultural…create and reinforce and sustain a cultural tone and a sense making of the world we’re in.

And when we use the word authentic, I think we’re probably referring, take Angela Merkel, she’s been mentioned earlier, she’s been very good at doing that with the German people and actually throughout the European Union, and thus I think we want authenticity, we want character, in people who are managing more than a start-up of a half-dozen people to with thousands Marriott International 175 of those to set the tone, help us appreciate what we stand for, what our purpose in life is, and in that sense use culture in the way that individuals and a small group cannot. So anyway I’ll stop on that Michael and Zab, back to you. 

 

Michael Platt, PhD:

Yeah, that’s really great. I’m gonna ask a very provocative question, which I think weaves together some of the questions we’ve been getting. So, a number of years ago, there was a study done by colleagues at Wharton and at Penn by Diana Robertson and John D’etre and Mark Kozlowski, and they basically brought MBA candidates in: they assessed them for their depth of moral reasoning, and then they did structural brain scans on them, and found that in fact there were identifiable patterns, differences, in the size of particular brain areas that that predicted how, or they were correlated, with how deeply one reasoned about the moral implications of one’s actions. And I think that those measures were a strong resemblance to what we’re talking about here in terms of leadership and authenticity and responsibilities.

And so I wonder, you know, how far away do you think we are from a winning scan or a blood test for leadership potential and if you’re a company that, or a country that, you know, where millions of lives depend on that, do we do it? 

 

Mike Useem:

Mike, I love the question, I’m gonna let somebody else answer 

 

Jonathan Kirschner PsyD:

Yeah, I’ll answer. We have tools that in many ways scratch the surface:…assessments, observational data, but we’re not close, I don’t think.

Thalia Wheatley:
I agree, I don’t think we’re close to sort of a litmus test; stuff someone in a scanner and see if they’re a leader yet, I don’t think it’s impossible to imagine that we’ll figure out some core principles and that we can sort of narrow the field down so these people have the kind of flexibility, the kind of adaptability, in their mental processes that suggests they may be better than others. I think that’s within reach. 

 

Christian Ruff:

So, I also don’t think we’re there. I just want to point out that it’s not just a question of developing the biological measures; I think the biological measures are there. I think we also have to really think very carefully what types of leadership we want to actually identify and the particular context. It’s possible that there’s not the one type of leader, right? There’s leaders for particular contexts and for particular tasks, and I think also there we have to do more work in order to actually get there. So I don’t really want to give an estimate of how long it will take, but I really think that we can all do a lot more research together. 

 

Mike Useem:

And Michael, just to reinforce the point, I think we’re all gonna die very, very rich if we can come up with the pharmacological solutions and the lack of leadership. And if you may recall from your youth when you read some of those Piggly Wiggly novels or accounts there was a bad character and he was given a leadership pill and he became good. So, there’s the Holy Grail, may we get there and maybe after we figure out how to solve COVID-19, maybe that would be our next agenda.

 

Michael Platt, PhD:

That’s outstanding. I’m gonna have to look that back up. Zab do you want to see if you can call from some of the questions?

 

Elizabeth (Zab) Johnson, Ph.D.:

Yeah I think Sid Patel has asked a few questions, so I’ll let him choose what might be the most relevant to ask right now.

 

Sid Patel:

Yeah, I think the first one is kind of answered by the panel so I appreciate that. The second one was to sort of the last point that Michael made on the study that was done with MBA candidates on brain patterns and how actions are driven with some sort of a moral connotation: I was just wondering do you, or anyone on the panel, think is it actions driving formation of such patterns, or is it somewhat nature with certain patterns already there that’s driving the actions to be sort of morally inclined, or is it cyclical over time? So just, I guess a question  to everyone.

 

Jonathan Kirschner PsyD:

I think, you know, we have certain gifts and everyone’s got their unique set of strengths and challenges that they’ve been endowed with and we’ll call that nature. And then there’s nurture, which is you know what we probably have even more control over and somehow our ability to learn I think that’s really the key to effectiveness. It’s not perfect, it’s not having a, you know, an A+ record. It’s the ability to learn and to self-reflect. (inaudible from 54:27-54:41) This differentiates, you know, high-performing leaders that may have some big wins, but then, you know, or no wins at all. 

 

Christian Ruff:

So basically, perhaps if I can just quickly jump in, for the vast majority of behavioral tendencies that neuroscience has studied, it’s always been nature and nurture. It’s a bit like Michael said, before, nature sets the range of the dial, and then nurture basically says where exactly that range or dial is actually then expressed. I’m not sure people have really looked at this in great detail for morality but it would be surprising if this was an exception.


Elizabeth (Zab) Johnson, Ph.D.:
Christian, I have a follow-up question: you know, with regards to your, you know, measure of responsibility, right, is that…like how much flexibility and change do people express over time? With that, you know, should that be a test that we, you know, put forward for anyone seeking a leadership position and how might that dovetail with what Thalia with, you know, the identified sort of influencers that Thalia has found?


Christian Ruff:

Yeah, so Thalia’s study and our study are really quite complimentary. They look at very different aspects in my eyes, I don’t know how Thalia sees it, but I see that what Thalia is looking at is how people in a group emerged to be leaders, right? And I think it has a lot to do, as we heard, with social skills; with the ability to project yourself into others and so forth. Whereas what we looked at was really, are people willing to lead? Like do they take a choice that they will take responsibility and then of course we also looked at whether that willingness was correlated with realized leadership ability.

Now you’re absolutely right; We cannot say from that study whether people were born that way and that’s why they show these two skills or whether they learned over the leadership challenges that they were faced with in their life to basically choose very consistently. We can’t say that at the moment, and I think no one can and that’s really a very interesting question that one really ought to look at. But, what I found interesting is just at this very particular decision style didn’t relate to anything else in our toolkit as behavioral economists of how we can characterize decision abilities, so I have a hunch that it really is something unique and that there is also some contribution that’s not just learned by them. 

 

But, I can’t really back that up at the moment and I think one would really have to look at training studies and I think for all of these things this is really what we ought to do in your opinion. That’s something…it takes longer than the studies that we usually do and it’s harder to do logistically, but it seems to be a question that everyone is fascinated by and that’s highly relevant. To what degree can we change all these things, and we really would have to do that over years, and I think Thalia, you have good data sets along this perspective. We don’t have that yet but we’re hoping to also do something like this.

 

Thalia Wheatley:

Great, I just very quickly, one thing that I think speaks to the nurture side potentially is we found that if you look across cohorts of MBA students, the people who become highly central in these networks tend to hail from places, countries, even counties of the U.S. level that are quite diverse. So we looked at all the countries in the world, 500 years of migration patterns, and people who come from countries that have had a lot of migrations such as Canada, Brazil, places like that, tend to, when they come, at least into the environments of an MBA program in the U.S., they tend to become highly central in their network. And same is true at the county level in the U.S. that if you hail from a county that has a lot of international ties, in terms of Facebook data, that you are more likely to become highly central in this new context that suggests at least that there might be something about having to adapt yourself to a diverse environment that is useful to becoming an influencer in your network.

Michael Platt, PhD:

That’s the coolest stuff I’ve ever seen Thalia, it’s really amazing. I mean we’re nearing the end of our time and I kind of, by way of an exit question, I wanted to ask all of the panelists: you’re all leaders and you know in your field, you’re leaders of labs, you’re leaders of companies, think tanks whatever, what have you taken from your own research to help you be a better leader? 

 

Mike Useem:

All right Michael, I’ll pick up on that, and I know we got to be very brief. Here’s what I’ve actually picked up, not only from my own thinking and research, but also what we’ve said today. Some people are going to have a head start. They come from a province where there is a lot of migration for example, some are just wired to be more extroverted than introverted, but for me I turn that upside down and I say therefore, and I know Richard Marcus is with us today, who’s one of our leadership coaches in the school that I teach in, if I’m going to work with somebody that has a head start on one area, I’m going to coach them differently because they may not be the kind of character we want. So great to combine in my view, the biological wiring, with the fact that the implication for me is as we worry about developing leadership we want to know what they bring and then that we can build appropriately upon that. So, I’ll end on that. 

 

Jonathan Kirschner PsyD:

Michael I can add…The importance of self-leadership and it being somewhat of a prerequisite…before going out into the world and meeting others, and so even though a lot of us are not traveling, they say when you go on an airplane, put your seat belt on first, put your face mask on first, that’s really I think the the core message that you can take away from … individual performance and it’s particularly resilient right now in times of crisis, and leadership is so important.

Christian Ruff:

Yeah I mean, friends, I can just briefly mention that because of the work that we do is so interdisciplinary and we combine people with so many different expertises, in so many different domains I’ve come to really appreciate that the sum is more than the parts. And we can only achieve something in teams and if you want to lead such a team what you have to do is not do the same thing with every person and for everyone, but to always try to take the perspective of everyone. What is it that they know? How is it that they see things, and then try to basically get people where they stand and and try to put them together and give everyone a shared meaning. And I think once once a group has a shared meaning it almost works by itself, but it takes a leader to actually create that. 

 

Thalia Wheatley:

I think, and this actually feeds off of Sam, I believe, in the in the chat who was interested in the paradox between adaptability and consistency and what I think I take away from what I’ve been hearing and my own research, is that people want leaders that have a consistent vision but they have adaptability within that consistency. So they trust in an authentic core, and a global sort of vision of where they want to go, but then they have the humility to accept that there are many paths to get there, right? So it’s this ability to be flexible and humble and adapt within a core vision of where you want the group to go. And I think that’s what I take leadership to be.
 

Elizabeth (Zab) Johnson, Ph.D.:

Great well that wraps up today’s session. Thank you guys so much for an outstanding discussion and for agreeing to take part. It’s been really, really great.

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