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Neuroscience & Leadership: interpersonal trumps analytics

We have it wrong. Well, actually, we have it backwards. What we’ve traditionally assumed about key traits for successful leadership in organizations- and implicitly and explicitly valued- is only part of the story. For decades, organizations have celebrated the analytical skills of their leaders. As a legacy of the industrial economy and the scientific method of management we have heralded and rewarded analytical and problem solving skills as key leadership attributes. Indeed, most of today’s leaders grew up in a world that rewarded analytical smarts and individual problem solving ability.

What’s the problem with this? Well, in short, this skill set is insufficient to solve today’s complex business challenges. It assumes a rational and scientific approach to solving problems, leading and executing strategy, when in fact, we are learning- in tangible and scientific ways- that emotions and social relationships may be even more important.

In a 2013 research report by The Conference Board Strategic Leadership Development, Global Trends and Approaches these key leadership traits were noted:



What’s the problem with this? Well, many if not most of these traits are not really analytical. They may have analytical components, but clearly there is more going on here: there are strong social, interpersonal and self-awareness skills and behaviors imbedded in these traits.

The converging worlds of Neuroscience and Leadership- grown out of Social Neuroscience (Matthew Lieberman), or NeuroLeadership (David Rock), have shed some useful light on this tension. In his Fortune magazine article Why Organizations Fail (Fortune, Oct 23, 2013), Rock notes:

“We have hired and promoted generations of managers with robust analytical skills and poor social skills, and we don’t seem to think that matters.”

The problem is, it DOES matter. In fact, according to Rock, it’s worse than that: not only does it matter, but the more senior the leader, the lower their capacity for self and social awareness!


The more complex the world becomes as a senior leader, the more difficult it is to hold both analytical thinking and social skills equally, and the former all too often crowds out the latter.

So what? What’s the implication for us as leaders, and as organizations that must develop more effective global leaders in order to meet the challenges that keep CEOs up at night? We must recognize and embrace that increasingly we must focus on the social and interpersonal skills- the “soft skills”- of leadership to complement the necessary analytical skills we have so long revered and rewarded. They are still important: indeed, strategic thinking, business acumen and systems thinking are key leadership skills, but they are not enough. They must be integrated with increased social and self-awareness in the recognition that, in the end leaders do not in the end lead organizations, they lead people.


Nick Noyes is co-founder of Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich, immersive business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.