3 | 2012
Leadership Is an Art

Leadership is a phenomenon that is hard to describe or quantify. Like musical talent or athletic ability, leadership is innate -- some have it, some don't.

Leadership Is a Science

With the active research in neuroscience, the secrets of leadership are being revealed. Those who aspire to lead effectively will apply the emerging neuroscience to inspire their followers to focus, learn, perform, and build social bonds, thus leading to organizational success.

"Most will say that leadership is more art than science and will always be an art form -- profoundly successful leadership being rare and confined to unusual people in unusual circumstances. This romantic view of leadership is like the view of disease before the invention of the microscope and penicillin."

-- Lynne Ellyn, Guest Editor

Opening Statement

When we think of leaders, we may think of charismatic politicians like John F. Kennedy, successful corporate executives like Jack Welch, or inspiring leaders like Mahatma Gandhi. What do these people have in common, if anything? What made them successful at getting others to vote for them, work for them -- even trek across a vast country with them? Can leaders in IT and business learn from these successful leaders, or were they just born with leadership ability?

What about toxic leaders like Joseph Stalin, Slobodan Milosovec, and Adolph Hitler? While they were obviously powerfully evil people, how did they manage to inspire their followers to heinous acts against humanity? Is there a parallel in the business world? When we encounter negative -- even toxic -- leadership in business, how do we explain the willingness of many followers to sell phony derivatives, burn incriminating documents, or steal corporate secrets? If leadership is an art, can it be a black art?

This month's Cutter IT Journal asks, "Is leadership a science?" Most will say that leadership is more art than science and will always be an art form -- profoundly successful leadership being rare and confined to unusual people in unusual circumstances. This romantic view of leadership is like the view of disease before the invention of the microscope and penicillin. Before scientific tools and methods, doctors had no germ theory of disease, and thus their unwashed hands and instruments carried infection from patient to patient. After the invention of the microscope and identification of microbes, meticulous hygiene became standard medical practice.

In a similar way, neuroscience research is replacing many complex theories of human and organizational behavior. With functional MRI (fMRI) technology, researchers can now see the "aha!" moment of insight happen in the brain and have documented the circumstances most conducive to it.1 Neuroscientists have examined the brain's fear center (the amygdala) and the brain's extensive reward circuitry. While research is ongoing, it is generally accepted that the fear and error detection circuitry in the brain has five times as much brain real estate as the reward circuitry. This means that it is incredibly easy to induce fear and negative emotions in others. We have seen toxic corporate leaders, fear-mongering politicians, and murderous tyrants exploit this sensitive brain circuitry to create explosive us-versus-them dramas. Subtle differences in the size of the amygdala may even influence political orientation. A recent British study showed that people who were politically conservative had a larger amygdala than those who had more liberal political orientations.2 A larger amygdala suggests that it is easier to motivate the behavior of some people based on fear and may explain the strange nature of politics.

In the workplace, motivating out of fear is clearly possible, but outcomes may not support the corporate agenda well. When the amygdala "lights up," the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) goes offline. The executive functions located in the PFC -- judgment, problem solving, discernment -- are impaired when the amygdala is on high alert. It is pretty clear that work environments filled with threats are not conducive to optimal brain functioning or, by inference, optimal performance.

Other findings about the brain that are emerging from the research suggest the tremendous importance of social connections. Since Mother Nature does not waste limited resources (brain size is limited by the skull), it is significant that there are many different neural circuits devoted to various aspects of social relatedness. In humans, the social networks are highly specialized and redundant. As one researcher commented, "Humans are an exquisitely social species."3

Much has been written in the popular press about the discovery of mirror neurons -- one of the social networks that humans and primates have in common. Mirror neurons in our brains light up when we observe another person performing a physical task. In other words, when we watch someone drinking coffee, mirror neurons in our brain fire in the same pattern as though we were lifting the cup and swallowing the coffee. New research shows that a mirroring system exists that allows us to feel the emotion expressed in the face of another. This is the basis of empathy, and, in the workplace, a leader needs to be aware that emotions are contagious. A negative, discouraged attitude can spread through a team and lead to employee disengagement, reducing productivity and profitability. On the other hand, a can-do, happy, energetic emotional climate is also contagious. Leaders need to manage the emotional tone of the environment effectively. In order to do that, they must be very skilled at their own emotional regulation. The good news is that with mindfulness training and practice, everyone can improve their ability to self-regulate their emotions.

David Rock has created a leadership framework called SCARF -- for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness -- based on the emerging insights in neuroscience.4 The SCARF framework is a shorthand way of remembering what the brain needs in order to perform effectively:

  • Status, in terms of SCARF, has a very specific meaning. It isn't about being high ranking per se; it is about being and feeling recognized and valued for your contributions. It is having "standing" with your peers and bosses.

  • Certainty is difficult to achieve in most fast-moving environments, especially with big change initiatives. A good way to think about certainty is the way the Gallup organization surveys it in their famous employee engagement survey: "Do I know what is expected of me at work?" In environments where the majority of employees strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work, performance soars. In contrast, uncertainty leads to "amygdala hijack," raising stress hormones and shutting down effective PFC activity. This, in turn, impairs judgment and interferes with focus and learning. If leaders invest in providing certainty to each and every employee, they can take care of one of the most basic brain needs.

  • Autonomy is critical for the brain. No one likes to be micromanaged -- it's stressful. Stress is a productivity killer and is obstructive to creativity, innovation, and those aha! moments of deep insight. Good leaders know that telling people what needs to be done creates certainty and clarity. Telling skilled employees how to do their job is disengaging and feels insulting.

  • Relatedness is all about the multiple and redundant social networks that make us "exquisitely social" creatures. Employees who build bonds with their coworkers, clients, bosses, and peers are not only happier at work, they are more committed and engaged. The Gallup organization has documented this with their seemingly strange question, "Do I have a best friend at work?" I have used the Gallup survey in a number of companies, and this question always gets the most agitated responses. Many people, particularly IT people, will say this is a dumb question -- they'll insist their best friend is their spouse, their dog, their college roommate, etc. However, the higher the percentage of employees who strongly agree that they have a best friend at work, the higher the productivity and success of the organization. Creating an environment where people feel safe and supported in building social relationships creates the potential for employees to form deep social attachments. This feeling of community leads to high employee engagement and support for organizational objectives.

  • Fairness is a perennial concern. What leader hasn't been challenged by fairness issues or at least the perception of them? Neuroscience studies have shown that even small acts of unfairness light up the amygdala. Research subjects who play a game with another person where the other player gets to decide on how to split a reward have very negative reactions when the reward is not split fairly.5 In one such game, the decider gets to split $10. The recipient can accept the offer or reject it. If they reject it, neither player gets anything. Recipients not only show brain activity indicating anger and "error detection," they will also reject offers that are unfair. In other words, they will forgo a financial reward to spite an unfair team player. This has deep implications for team rewards and individual recognition.

Leaders can apply the SCARF framework in the workplace and improve productivity and results.


Let's get back to our original question: is leadership a science? This month's issue presents some diverse thoughts about leadership and its nature -- science, art, or who knows what?

In our first article, David Chan and Mark Woodman dispute the idea that leadership is a science but acknowledge the contribution neuroscience may make to understanding leadership. They assert that leadership is situational and provide many examples. Fair enough. However, the examples given from history are basically military in nature -- certainly a very different situation from trying to implement SAP or complete code reviews for a new product. I would suggest that it is time to drop the war/sports/conquest context for leadership and focus on employees and business leaders trying to make a living and find meaning in their work. And, as Chan and Woodman note, we can definitely skip the "wild, drunken orgies" as a means of team building!

Next, Cutter Fellow Robert Charette and coauthor Kerry Gentry take on the differences between management and leadership and tell us some depressing tales of modern leadership failures in business and government. They assert that the failures signal a dearth of leadership and an excess of management. In the end they provide us with a useful model -- the Leadership Wheel -- for assessing leadership traits and emphatically argue that leadership is a science!

In their well-researched article, Richard and Douglas Houston propose "a scientific approach to leadership" and explain how organizations can develop a leadership competency model to bring this about. Drawing on their deep experience and database of thousands of leadership profiles, they provide a useful, empirical framework for assessing and improving leadership skills.

Unlike the authors of our previous two articles, Craig McComb discounts the notion of leadership as science and declares instead that "leadership is an endeavor of passion." While skills are necessary -- and McComb makes a strong case that technical knowledge is required to lead well in IT -- he insists that leaders need passion to succeed. I would agree, since leadership can be so challenging and exhausting. McComb provides us with some of his personal story, relating how his passion for leadership development drove his quest to become a better leader.

Finally, Michael Hughes reminds us not to forget the team and how they learn. While team learning might seem somewhat tangential to the topic of leadership, Hughes persuasively argues that "it move[s] the problems of understanding and managing team dynamics out of the sometimes slippery realm of 'soft' leadership skills -- with their emphasis on interaction styles -- into the more prescriptive science of learning theory." Through the use of learning theory, IT leaders are better able "to manage their teams for the correct balance of innovation and efficiency."

So there you have it. Whether you subscribe to the notion of leadership as science or consider it more of an art, we hope that this issue of Cutter IT Journal will provide tools and insights to improve leadership development in your own organization.


1 Jung-Beeman, Mark, Azurii Collier, and John Kounios. "How Insight Happens: Learning from the Brain." NeuroLeadership Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2008, pp. 20-25.

2 Barber, Nigel. "Conservatives Big on Fear, Brain Study Finds." Psychology Today, 19 April 2011.

3 Rizzolatti, Giacomo, and Laila Craighero. "Mirror Neuron: A Neurological Approach to Empathy." In Neurobiology of Human Values, edited by Jean-Pierre Changeux, Antonio Damasio, and Wolf Singer. Reprint edition. Springer, 2010, pp. 107-124.

4 Rock, David. "SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others." NeuroLeadership Journal, Vol. 1. No. 1, 2008, pp. 296-320.

5 Tabibnia, Golnaz, and Matthew D. Lieberman. "Fairness and Cooperation Are Rewarding: Evidence from Social Cognitive Neuroscience." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1118, 2007, pp. 90-101.


Is leadership a science? Whether you subscribe to the notion of leadership as science or consider it more of an art, we hope that this issue of Cutter IT Journal will provide tools and insights to improve leadership development in your own organization.