Team studies brains of successful leaders
August 19, 2011
FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan., Aug. 18, 2011 -- Researchers from Arizona State University want to know, quite literally, what moral and ethical development looks like.
Researchers from Arizona State, with support from the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic -- a part of the Combined Arms Center -- and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, visited Fort Leavenworth last week to see if there's a scientific brain pattern that develops when people develop moral and ethical standards.
David Waldman and Pierre Balthazard, business instructors at Arizona State University, brought a research team to examine the brains of Command and General Staff College students, staff and Army civilians to find out more about moral development.
Using brain patterns of people with good leadership skills, they can produce a picture of what the brain of a "transformational leader" looks like -- that is, a leader who can inspire and motivate others.
"We've actually come up with a pretty good profile for what distinguishes a really good transformational leader from somebody who's not such a good transformational leader," Waldman said. "At least, according to their peers or followers -- yes, there's a different brain pattern or signature."
Col. Sean Hannah, director for CAPE, worked with the researchers previously as part of a leadership study at the U.S. Military Academy, at West Point, N.Y. That was the start of a study using neuroscience for leadership development and moral and ethical development.
"This is state-of-the-art, cutting-edge research, so we've got a long way to go to develop it, but ultimately we could potentially use it to track leader development," he said.
Researchers use a questionnaire and electroencephalography, or EEG, to record electrical activity. Waldman showed pictures of USMA cadets wearing an EEG "cap," which painlessly tracks electrical signals in the brain. Researchers take the test subject through a series of moral choices and scenarios to find out how the brain responds.
Seventeen subjects at Fort Leavenworth were tested earlier in the year. Researchers came back to add more test subjects to their data.
Researchers will produce a summarized report and present it to Training and Doctrine Command this winter. The results of individual test subjects are strictly confidential.
Although it's outside the scope of this study, researchers did mention a possibility of conditioning to influence brain patterns similar to those with positive leadership styles. Called neurofeedback, or EEG feedback, the process allows a person to more effectively control his or her own brain patterns. It's already in use by professional golfers and in expert marksmanship training.
Balthazard said the process is also used by doctors to treat attention deficit and other disorders.
"It's not a chemical induced solution to those problems," he said. "It's a natural solution to those problems."
Col. Mark Collins, a seminar leader for the School of Advanced Military Studies, was one of the test subjects.
"I'd just like to see what impacts decision making, the internal piece of what's going on inside your brain," he said.
Maj. David Schnarr, CGSC student in the 2011-02 Intermediate Level Education class, said he was interested in participating to learn more about the brain. However, he was skeptical as to whether it could help change the minds of any toxic leaders within the Army.
"Most toxic leaders would just ignore it," he said of brain studies, "if it's a true toxic leader."
Maj. Kirk Junker, a student in the 2011-02 ILE class, said he hoped to learn more about himself.
"It's another way to assess leadership, to find people who can communicate and inspire others," he said.
The same researchers have conducted similar studies in the business world. Balthazard said he looked at similar patterns of leadership in corporate executives.
"As humans, we would like to tell our brains what to do," he said. "Quite frankly, our brains are in charge."