Category Science Radar
17 March 2022

“You can be a better leader, it’s all in your brain.” Research on the edge of knowledge

Tag Leadership
Tag Research

Did you know that a human's brain storage capacity is considered virtually unlimited? No drive or storage device - no matter how big - can match it. In many ways, the power of our brain actually increases over our lifespan. And it gets even better: research into the brain could logically unearth many solutions that remain elusive to us today. After all, we still understand surprisingly little of what goes on in our control centers. Thomas Südhof, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2013, was quoted a few years ago as saying that it was five percent at best. How accurate this figure is and how much there is still to be discovered is not something this text should or can clarify. Instead, we turn our spotlight on an area of neuroscience that projects many invaluable findings of brain research onto a topic that is the core at our Executive & Professional Education offer - and that is leadership.

The setting for our story is the Neurophysiological Leadership Lab at the Technical University of Munich, founded in 2020. Here, a team of scientists led by Dr. Franziska Emmerling has since been researching at the edge of knowledge to understand and mediate how destructive leadership arises based on leaders’ and followers’ brain function, what its neural effects might be - and above all, how to effectively counteract it. The team's theory: with the help of scientific knowledge acquired in an interdisciplinary setup including neuroscience, anyone can become a better, smarter leader. All it takes is an open mind, the right tools, a willingness to apply theory into practice, and the certainty that it's never too late to change yourself and your brain.

The point is not to “tune” the brain 

To get the following straight: "The point of what we do is not to artificially ‘tune’ the brain through targeted stimulation and scans to create better managers. In a way, we might even be able to do that - but that would be absolutely pointless and the opposite of what we want to achieve," says Dr. Franziska Emmerling, who heads the Lab at TUM. As a renowned neuroscientist with career stops at the universities of Maastricht and Oxford, she had dedicated herself to the topics of behavioral and neuronal enhancement of cognitive control, response inhibition and impulse control long before she moved to the southern German metropolis. Together with her team, she is pushing the boundaries of what we know about the physiological mechanisms and effects of different leadership styles to educate and trigger self-optimization processes.

In conjunction with state-of-the-art technologies - and even experiments with social robots - many measures are aimed at communicating better and developing the ability to improve our understanding of ourselves and others. And for this, Franziska Emmerling states three important principles: "First: Everything we do, what we think and feel has a physiological correlate. This is not deterministic. That's just the fact. Second, our brains are highly plastic. That means we as humans have the limitless potential to learn, to restructure our brain connections, and to think better. There are virtually no lost cases. And that's why it's always worth working on ourselves”. The third principle follows on seamlessly from this - and is one of the reasons why she is optimistic about the future even in uncertain times of upheaval. "Whenever we manage to understand the cause of a problem, we can target its solution. The same is true for people. Neurophysiology can help us better understand behaviors and derive individualized interventions accordingly. For example, we have been able to identify certain cognitive structures, predispositions and thought patterns in people based on which we can better understand the way these people deal with frustration, rules or stress. By analyzing these patterns, we as scientists can also identify cognitive countermeasures that ultimately help improve human relationships in general, and the leader-follower relationship in particular in a sustainable way." At this point, she refers to a famous quote by Marie Curie stating, "Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Munich – a hotspot for both science and innovation 

Munich is the ideal place to do this, says Franziska Emmerling. The reason: Here, interdisciplinary research and practice mesh perfectly. "The diverse start-up and corporate landscape based in the city, the healthy competition between two of Europe's most renowned universities, and the willingness to go beyond the boundaries of one's own department to seek out new solutions, offer the perfect breeding ground for innovation - both in research and in business," says Emmerling. "Not only do I have valuable collaborations with researchers from TUM, LMU and other Munich teaching institutions, but I also have the full backing of the university leadership to do what excites me. And that includes figuring out how leaders can bring out the best in themselves and their followers."

Educating the next-generation of business leaders

The young neuroscientist also passes on the findings from her research to participants of the Executive & Professional Education programs, more specifically to the Executive MBA participants. Teaching in the context of the leadership modules, she enables the students to have a broader understanding of themselves as leaders and of people and their behaviors, she sheds light on new methods of conflict resolution, and reinforces classic leadership skills such as motivating, observing, and recognizing cognitive patterns. "It's about developing an understanding of their role as leaders, how they can actually help their colleagues and employees, and also teaching them how to recognize when they can't bring the solution themselves," explains Franziska Emmerling. "But at the same time, it's also about communicating that these things really do have an impact and, for example, something like bullying is not only an ‘abstract phenomenon’ but can actually destroy a person's brain chemistry in a lasting way. I like to call that neuroscientific literacy, because even a basic understanding of how the brain works can help you lead better."

For herself, this touchpoint with emerging leaders is also exciting. After all, science benefits immensely from networking with actors in lived practice. "If I were just sitting in my metaphorical science tower without exchanges with people who come from other fields, I would have fewer ideas about where to apply our research. I love hearing stories from everyday work and getting involved in discussions. The leadership modules provide the ideal space for this - and that's why I always enjoy teaching at TUM.”