Jun 24, 2014

Leadership style and neural networks - Part 1


You’re probably familiar with the two leadership styles: task/objective-oriented leadership, sometimes called Theory X, or human/emotional-oriented, Theory Y. The American MBO model with its financial and quantitative goals leaves out the human dimension. People-oriented leadership, as exemplified by Toyota, can get better business results.

Task oriented and human oriented domains in the brain

Researchers have now found two largely independent neural networks associated with these leadership styles, according to a recently published paper* by Richard Boyatzis, Anthony Jack, and Kylie Rochford of Case Western Reserve University. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used to observe the workings of the two networks as subjects in an experiment engaged in leadership simulations., however they did find an objective-oriented neural net, called the task positive network, or TPN, and a social domain, called the default mode network, DMN (it was first believed to be the brain’s default state). They found that there is no “leadership” center in the brain. Each network integrates several different regions of the brain.

What’s interesting about these findings is that each network actually suppresses the other when it is in use. Practice -- repeated firing of neurons over time -- makes a neural network stronger. The objective-focused leader is making the TPN stronger by using it more often, so the weaker DMN activates thinking about people less often. On the other hand, the people-oriented leader with a dominant DMN network may not do as well with TPN-oriented pursuits of quantitative goals or deadlines.

Does this mean that the management-by-numbers leader can’t be a lean leader with active respect for people? The good news is that the brain naturally cycles between the two domains, so nobody’s brain is in either mode permanently. Whether instinctively or with practice, the leader can activate the DMN in a situation related to people, and the TPN in problem solving or analytical tasks.

Some comments by lean leaders who previewed this blog post:

Matt Wrye: I find this to be fascinating and enriching as I reflect on my actions as a lean leader.  I have never consciously thought about the two types of leadership. It helps me put into perspective situations where I have used TPN or DMN.
Analyzing data to understand value stream flows within a manufacturing facility or planning a week long improvement event are ways I have used TPN.  Then I have to turn around and use DMN to help others understand the value stream flows I have discovered or to get others in the improvement event to not fear sharing and implementing their ideas.

Chris Paulsen:  This is a very interesting revelation.  We have all seen that some leaders have a natural bent towards connecting on a personal level while others are more task oriented.  The best leaders are able to find the right balance for their leadership role.  The great news is that we naturally cycle between the domains of our brain.  This may explain how leaders are able to find a better balance with practice. 

I'll be co-blogging this three-part article with Matt Wrye, of Beyond Lean, and Jeff Hajek, of Gotta Go Lean.

For more reading:

* Richard Boyatzis, professor of organizational behavior, Anthony Jack, assistant professor of cognitive science, and Kylie Rochford, a PhD student in organizational behavior, all at Case Western Reserve University, “Antagonistic neural networks underlying differentiated leadership roles.” Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, March 4, 2014.

An easier-to-read press release regarding the paper: Case Western Reserve University, “Leaders wired to be task-focused or team-builders, but can be both.” Science Daily, March 24, 2014.

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