Do we need to have some standard of competency required of our leaders? The recent failed track record of many prominent captains of industry and political leaders might lead us to think so.

Most professions require some kind of competency test before a member--such as a doctor, lawyer, accountant, psychologist, etc.-- can practice as a recognized professional. And regulatory bodies, which include in some cases, legislation, maintain standards within that profession. No such requirement exists for an individual to be a leader of any organization or country. In a sense it's akin to the requirement to have a driver's license to drive a car, but no requirement to be a parent.

Dr. David Rock, founder of the Neuroleadership Institute, and author of books, Quiet Leadership, Your Brain At Work, and Coaching With the Brain at Mind, argues that it may be time to consider a competency test for leaders. In his article in Psychology Today Online, he says, "with no barrier to entry, our top political leaders are currently chosen through a kind of 'oral examination process," otherwise known as trial-by-media circus." Rock claims that it's possible to judge someone else's character as well as they know themselves in just a few minutes.

How? This conclusion is based on the work of psychologist Simine Vazire at Washington University, who published his work in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, where he argues that, "while we're the best experts about our thoughts and feelings, we're not especially insightful about our actual behavior." Vazire contends that people's self views about their leadership skills are not more accurate that the ratings by others.

Has neuroscience research advanced to the point where we can predict who will be a good leader by studying their brain activity? Sandy Pentland, and his colleagues from M.I.T., reported in an article in the Harvard Business Review

In a study in which they observed executives at a social party with devices that recorded data on their social signals--tone of voice, gesticulation, proximity to others, and more. Five days later these executives presented business plans to a panel of judges in a contest. Without reading or hearing the presentations, Pentland and his colleagues accurately forecasted the winners, using data only collected the party. They argue that non-verbal social cues--gestures, expressions and tone--have the greatest impact on others. Pentland reported that the more successful people are more energetic--they talk more and also listen more and spend more time face-to-face with others, pick up cues from others, draw people out and get them to be more outgoing.

In an article in Strategy +Business, Mark Buchanan describes the work of Pentland and his colleagues at the Human Dynamics Group at M.I.T., where they studied, using portable devices built into eyeglasses and clothing, the movements of telephone sales operators at Vertex Data Science, the world's largest call center outsourcing. Pentland predicted accurately, after only a few seconds of listening to calls, the ultimate success or failure of each call.

Rock reports that "there are other breakthroughs emerging from neuroscience research, including the ability to measure a leader's brain functions directly and a deeper understanding of what drives human social behaviors in the workplace."
Neuroscience research into human behavior and particularly in the area of leadership raises the age old question of whether leaders re born or made--is it nature or nurture? Is leadership a science or art or both? And of course, this also raises questions about whether scientifically studying brain functions can explain things such as free will, consciousness and if the brain is the mind. University of Calgary professor Walter Glannon, writing in the journal Bioethics, argues that "the mind emerges from and is shaped by interaction among the brain, body, and environment. The mind is not located in the brain but is distributed among these three entities." Undoubtedly, other experts will weigh in on this question as neuroscience advances.

This debate over leadership characteristics and whether leadership is an art or science that can be studied and therefore develop competency tests raises the question on how to best train leaders, a question proposed by the Greek philosopher Plato, who argued that leaders need to be philosopher-kings with years of appropriate training and community service before they are allowed to assume the responsibility of leadership.

Given the obvious failures of leadership we have seen on Wall Street, the political world and environmental disasters, the field of neuroleadership may provide us with some valuable information about how best to train and select our leaders.

Author's Bio: 

Ray B. Williams is Co-Founder of Success IQ University and President of Ray Williams Associates, companies located in Phoenix and Vancouver, providing leadership training, personal growth and executive coaching services.