What Neuroscience Can Tell Us About Ethical Leadership

by Andrew Leigh, Featured Contributor

Part 1 of a Four-Part Series and White Paper

GalileoPEERING THROUGH one of the early telescopes in 1610, Galileo saw a glowing band across the night sky. What we now call the Milky Way has at least 100 billion stars.

Sounds a lot? Well that’s nearly as many neurons as in your brain. Neurons are the nerve cells that handle communication by making countless connections between them.

Recently a Brazilian scientist realised no one knew where this headache making number of 100 billion neurons came from. After some rather unpleasant experiments involving real brains, she arrived at 86 billion neurons, which is easy to understand…it’s an awful lot!

you-are-here-milky-wayNo wonder the Milky Way, like the brain, remains fairly unknown. But at least with neuroscience we’re beginning to make sense of some of the mysteries of what happens inside our heads.

When it comes to brain research the experts use sophisticated scanning machines with strange lettering like FMRI that translates as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which hardly helps much. These are starting to give a better picture of what’s goes on in our brain and we’re slowly unravelling the biological foundations of human behaviour and thinking.

But can brain research actually say anything useful about leaderships and business ethics? From brain research so far, we know it has many implication:


Neuroscience is the study of how the nervous system—and brain—works
Neuroeconomics: emerging discipline combines neuroscience, economics, and psychology
Neuroaccounting: new way to scientifically view accounting and the brain’s central role in building economic institutions
Neuromarketing: application of neuroscientific methods to analyse and understand human behaviour in relation to markets and marketing exchanges
Neuroethics: investigation of altruism in neuroeconomic research, which suggests that cooperation is linked to activation of reward areas
Neurogovernance: seeks to explain behaviours of directors, auditors, or even those who breach corporate governance.
Neuroleadership: study of leadership through the lens of neuroscience to explore central elements of leadership, including self-awareness, awareness of others, insight, decision making, and influencing.

Source: Z Ahmad, Brain in Business: The Economics of Neuroscience, Malays J Med Sci. 2010 Apr-Jun; 17(2): 1–3.

Neuroscience is now something of a bandwagon. Shove neuro in front of just about anything and it sounds more academic and intelligent than it really is.

Drawing useful leadership action from all this arcane activity is a struggle. Most of what brain science says so far, is complex, hedged with caveats, mired in jargon and often highly abstract. And just because machines can map or “see” areas of the brain lighting up with activity doesn’t mean we really understand what a leader should do about it.

Emotions versus Logic

For a long time it was thought the brain was mainly emotional. This implied our brain used universal rules of morality—right and wrong, good and evil, fair and unfair and so on. The emotional view has given way to a new rational brain with a split between reason and emotion.

Now we have areas seemingly in charge of cognitive control and working memory. Other areas are indeed tied to emotion. Yet even though the actual brain has two halves, the split does not really help in sorting out which bit does what. Each half can do work the other can do too.

These uncertainties stop us fully unravelling the secrets of creativity, let alone ethics. For all the clever machines, for example, we still don’t know where ethical insights come from, how we judge right from wrong, what happens when we make new, surprising connections, such as between a faulty component and customer deaths?

Some brain experts claim to know what parts of the brain are responsible for certain activity. Using high tech to watch blood flows in the brain for example, they can even show the act of creation when parts of brain light up like a Christmas candle.

What’s certainly clear from this research is we have no central place in our brain taking care of ethics. There is no single section spending all its time making difficult moral choices. Despite this, there are important implications to be drawn from brain science for ethical leaders.

What Brain Science Can Tell Us

Work for the US giant GE and the firm’s competitors will probably see you as a good catch. Yet when stars of GE move on to their next company, their previous shine often dims.

Rather than recruit other firms’ talent, some companies are instead calling in neuroscience to help make smarter choices about who to hire; or to discover how current employees could do better.

Brain science can potentially also help ethical leaders find employees who share similar values or feel concerned about issues like integrity or honesty. Whether this is right or not remains an open question.

Founded by neuroscientists, Pymetrics of New York for example, claims to have such tests using on-line games. These examine nearly 50 different behaviours such as memory, attention span, pattern recognition, attention to detail, and ability to plan, as well as emotional characteristics, such sensitivity and risk tolerance.

Neuroscience is in danger of becoming something of a leadership religion. From handling diversity, to dealing with bias and prejudice, brain researchers keep revealing what’s happening inside our heads. Psychology has been making these points for decades. But the brain scientists can show it actually happening, with implications for possible leadership actions.

Most recently Facebook for example, admitted working on ways to affect user’s feelings, using the manipulation of data to create “emotional contagion.” Critics have called it spooky, scandalous and dangerous. What we know for sure is neuroscience is not going to go away. Like most human inventions it has the potential to be used for good or evil.

The suggestions in the next three posts are interpretations of known neuroscience findings. Some neuroscientists and indeed some leaders would doubtless claim they are over simplistic.
But for those willing to take the rough with the smooth the implications of neuroscience for ethical leadership appear as possibilities and suggestions.

The Three Essentials

SPEED-COMPLEXITY-RELATIONSHIPSEthical leaders don’t need to become brain experts to draw benefits from neuroscience. The three essentials for making sense of its potential contribution are speed, complexity and relationships (SCR).

Leaders, especially ethical leaders, wanting to build a responsible organisation will find some of the latest neuroscience conclusions useful under these each of the brain activities of Speed, Complexity and Relationships.

More detailed implication of neuroscience will appear in three subsequent posts published over the next three weeks. A combined White Paper will be published at the end of September 2014. And will be notified here.


Andrew Leigh
Andrew Leigh
ANDREW is author of Ethical Leadership, (Kogan Page 2013) and writes regularly at He believes business needs to re-discover the importance of ethics and integrity. As an expert on leadership Andrew writes regularly on ways to help managers be more effective as ethical leaders. His blog stays close to the zeitgeist with a unique perspective on many aspects of leading organisations ethically, including compliance, and engagement. Andrew is a joint founder in 1989 of Maynard Leigh Associates ( pioneers of using ideas from theatre in business. He was a hands-on practising manager for many years in the public sector, ending his time on the front line running a division with over 1000 staff. Andrew also spent several years as a business and financial journalist, including time at The Observer newspaper. He has written over 20 books on management, leadership teams and so on. Originally trained as an economist, he is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He is available for speaking engagements, interviews, feature articles and consultancy.

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