Can brain scans tell us who makes a good chief executive?

By Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent, BBC News

  • Published

Sir John Madejski is about to find out what is going on inside his head.

After final preparations by a team of scientists the leading British businessman lies down on a stretcher and is wheeled gently into an MRI scanner.

But Sir John is not ill. The 45-minute brain scan is part of a unique experiment to try to work out whether science can be applied to the study of leadership.

Neuroscientists, psychologists and management experts at Reading University are collaborating on a study which aims to examine the brains of chief executives and leaders in other field like the military or voluntary organisations.

Decision makers

Dr Kevin Money of Henley Business School, now part of Reading University, explains the aims: "We hope to look at how leaders from different sectors make decisions, what actually leads people to move from making good to bad decisions, what goes on in people's minds and how they make those choices."

Inside the scanner, Sir John is not just having a rest, he is completing a series of exercises.

Professor Douglas Saddy of Reading's Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics looks on as the businessman presses a keypad to make various financial decisions by pressing buttons: "In this case," he explains, "what he is being asked to do is make a judgement about whether given a certain set of information a short-term reward would be better than a long-term reward."

While he presses the keypad his brain activity is being measured. The results of this and a number of other scans will be aggregated to try to draw out some lessons.

Sir John emerges from the £1m scanner looking cheerful enough.

Image caption,
Spot the business leader

"I think they found my brain," he jokes. The entrepreneur has made enough money from a string of businesses to buy a football club and endow a Centre for Reputation at Henley Business School.

He is enthusiastic about the project and has promised to encourage fellow tycoons to submit their brains for scanning.

Dr Money is cautious about promising instant results from this research: "It's way too early, we can't look at one person's brain and conclude too much. What we can do is look at different groups, say military and business leaders, and compare leadership education within those different groups."

Image caption,
Peter Saville believes in the power of psychometric testing.

But using technology to examine what makes a good leader is nothing new. For many decades organisations around the world have used psychometric testing to help choose candidates for senior positions, and to try to understand what constitutes a good leader.

But psychometrics is a controversial science, with some critics suggesting it makes claims that cannot be substantiated.

Professor Peter Saville has run businesses supplying psychometric techniques for more than 30 years.

He outlines for me a history of his science which he says stretches back to techniques used by Samuel Pepys to select naval officers, and insists that it makes a valuable contribution to the process of choosing job candidates: "You still find interviewers who judge people on the first minute of an interview," he says. "All we are doing is reducing the odds of choosing the wrong person. It's science versus sentiment."

Non-strategic me

Then Professor Saville sets me a psychometric test of my leadership skills. It involves some 36 quite complex questions, where I am asked to rank my own skills - from decisiveness to strategic thinking.

Often, I am asked to decide between aspects of my personality that are not mutually exclusive - whether I seek to consult other members of the team, whether I am keen to promote my own work.

After I complete the questionnaire, Professor Saville hands me a report on my leadership skills.

It is not encouraging. "You come in the bottom 2% of the population for strategic vision," he tells me. He tactfully tries to reassure me that I have scored very highly as a networker and a communicator - important skills for a journalist - but makes it clear that I am not going to be asked to lead some major organisation any time soon.

Image caption,
Headhunter Virginia Eastman does not believe brain scanners will force her to look for a new job.

So is there a chance that a recruitment industry which already uses psychometrics will now look to other techniques, including perhaps brain scanning? One headhunter is sceptical.

Virginia Eastman of Heidrick and Struggles hunts down candidates for senior roles in global media organisations. She says that new technology is helping to make the process of communicating with and assessing suitable leaders more rapid, but it only goes so far: "Our whole profession is built on one thing, the consensus that we all know what good looks like, and that we make that judgement. No machine can replace that."

Neuroscientists and psychologists believe they can make a real contribution to our understanding of what makes leaders tick.

But for now, those whose job it is to select leaders still believe it is more of an art than a technology.

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