Sunday, 21 November 2010

Can leadership abilities be detected in brain scans?

Whilst the debate about the root of good leadership is engaging an increasingly larger number of HR professionals, business leaders and academics, and is becoming the more and more passionate in a bid to ultimately find out whether leadership is an inborn quality or can be actually learned, scientists are investigating whereas it is rather a cerebral feature.

Differently from those who sustain that leadership can be learned, the advocates of the idea that leadership is an inborn feature contend that genuine leaders owe this ability to their “innate traits” and that individuals not having received this natural gift cannot gain leadership abilities by learning. Whether the scientists’ belief which leadership abilities relate to a “biological factor” should prove to be true, the theory that leadership is an innate aptitude may sensibly gain ground vis-à-vis that sustaining that leadership can be learned.

It is difficult to say whether in the not-too-distant future head-hunters will make their decisions about the recruitment of senior managers and executives on the basis of the applicant brain scans, rather than of their CVs and interviews. Nonetheless, the pioneering study conducted by the Reading University, regardless of the results it will produce and albeit it is too early to deem it promising, seems to be if anything really interesting.

The investigation is conducted by Dr Money, of Henley Business School, who outlines the aims and objectives of the investigation: "We hope to look at how leaders from different sectors make decisions, what actually leads people to move from making good to bad decisions, what goes on in people's minds and how they make those choices" (Money, 2010).

The launch of the investigation has seen protagonist Sir John Madejski, a leading British business leader, who after having been prepared by a team of scientists was gently wheeled into a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan, where he spent 45 minutes. During this period of time Sir Madejski was not indeed just passively waiting for the machine to perform its scan activities, but was asked to complete a number of exercises implying decision-making activities in the presence of Professor Saddy of the Reading's Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics.

Sir Madejski was basically asked to make some financial decisions, which were confirmed pressing the buttons of a special keypad placed inside the MRI scanner. "In this case", explains Professor Saddy (2010), "what he is being asked to do is make a judgement about whether given a certain set of information a short-term reward would be better than a long-term reward." Whilst Sir Madejski was performing his decision-making activity into the scan, his brain activity was measured by the cutting-edge £1m MRI scanner.

The investigation carried out with the help of Sir Madejski is not clearly enough to reach reliable conclusions; he was in fact the first volunteer available to start the experiment and was so enthusiastic as to promise to support the study encouraging other leading businessmen to “lend” their brains to the University for scanning purposes. In order to gather significant information the experiment needs to be obviously replicated several times. Neuroscientists, psychologists and management experts at Reading University aim at this moment in time at examining more in particular the brains of the business chief executives and of the senior executives of different industries like voluntary organisations and the military.

Dr Money (2010), who suggests to treat the experiment with some caution for the moment, especially as for what concerns the immediate results of the study, stresses the importance of conducting a significant number of experiments before reaching a conclusion: "It's way too early, we can't look at one person's brain and conclude too much. What we can do is look at different groups, say military and business leaders, and compare leadership education within those different groups."
Using technology to understand what makes a good leader is not actually a completely new technique. For decades organisations across the globe have used psychometric tests to select candidates, habitually for senior management positions, and to try and find out what behind a good leader.

Psychometric, nonetheless, is considered by many as a controversial science and has as such supporters and detractors. Saville (2010), who belongs to the former group, claims that such a technique dates back to the techniques used by Samuel Pepys to select naval officers and contends that psychometric tests make a valuable contribution to the process of selecting the right candidate for the appropriate position: "You still find interviewers who judge people on the first minute of an interview", he says, "all we are doing is reducing the odds of choosing the wrong person. It's science versus sentiment."

It is indeed sorely impossible to say today whether it is realistic believing that there is a chance that the recruitment industry, which already uses psychometric tests, will have the option to resort to brain scans or other technological means in the future. Virginia Eastman head-hunter with Heidrick and Struggles, who recruits candidates for senior roles in global media organisations, for instance, appears to be rather sceptical. She claims that new technologies are helping to make the process of communicating with and assessing suitable leaders more rapid but she adds: "Our whole profession is built on one thing, the consensus that we all know what good looks like, and that we make that judgement. No machine can replace that" (Eastman, 2010).

According to Eastman (2010), albeit neuroscientists and psychologists believe that they can make a real contribution to the head-hunters’ understanding of what makes leaders effective, those whose job is to select leaders still believe it is more of an art, rather than a matter of technology. Notwithstanding, it is extremely important do not forgetting that, irrespective of the results technology will be able to yield, brain scans (provided that the final findings of the investigation conducted at the Reading University will prove to be successful) and similar tests should not be exclusively used to make the final decision.
Both the CIPD (2010) and the British Psychological Society (BPS, 2010) recommend that tests have not to be used in a judgmental, decisive mode. Torrington et al. (2008) stress the idea that the results produced by tests have to be used only to stimulate discussion with candidates and that every time recruiters use test methodologies, candidates should invariably receive feedback.
The CIPD (2010) warns that using the information provided by such types of tests to make final recruitment decisions may result in breaching some regulations (for instance, in the UK the 1998 Data Protection Act) so that these should only be used as part of a wider process where the indications received from the results of these tests can be backed by other sources. Yet, Ceci and Williams (2000) have warned of the risks related to the use of norm tables, pointing out that these change over time so that using old tests with old norms might very likely result to be deceptive.

All in all, tests and scans, provided that these may actually give significant information, should not be used to the detriment of the recruiter feelings, sensations and experience. Brain scans are likely to be extremely expensive whether it is necessary a £1 m machine to perform them. Yet, it is also very likely that the practitioners in charge of making the final reports might require time to submit these. It is hence improbable that recruiters may be able to effectually use these any time soon.

Longo, R., (2010), Can be leadership abilities detected in brain scans?, HR Professionals, Milan, [online].