The Dean Can Read Your Mind

Pierre Balthazard has spent years studying the brains of top bosses and now, he says he can neuro-train the brain into better leadership   

Back Article Feb 16, 2016 By Jeff Wilser

Imagine a world where you’re hooked to a system of electrodes that scans your skull, hunts for patterns, and then scores your IQ, emotional intelligence, ability to communicate, capacity for judgment and potential to be a good leader. Then imagine that the therapist says, “The bad news is that your score should be higher. The good news is that I can get it there by helping you physically change your brain.”

This world exists today in Sacramento — or it almost does, according to Dr. Pierre Balthazard, dean of Sacramento State’s College of Business. His “hobby” of plunging into the core of people’s brains may change the future of leadership. “There are a lot of people working on this and we are close, very close, maybe six months to a year away from making this a reality,” said Balthazard, whose innovative studies at the intersection of management theory and neuroscience have gained worldwide attention. What he’s talking about is a process of literally changing your brain through neurofeedback and brain training in a way that enhances all of your business and interpersonal leadership skills.

“I’m not saying we can connect your brain to a machine and you’ll become a CEO in a few weeks,” said Balthazard, whose research has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and on CNN. “But, I am saying that by utilizing existing technology, we will be able to change your brain’s neuro-pathways first, and then you will be able to successfully apply those changes to a real situation in the world.” In other words, it will enhance your ability to lead, especially if your brain is already wired in that direction. “We cannot, for example, make a leading mathematician out of someone who is not already good at math, but we can take what you have regarding leadership and make you much better.”

“What I’m really interested in is how to make leaders in an organization better. I think we’re very close to being able to do that.” Dr. Pierre Balthazard, dean, Sacramento State’s College of Business

The practice of neurofeedback is already being successfully used to treat ADHD and depression. Balthazard is applying these same principles to business. For the last 15 years, he has led an effort to understand how leaders’ brains are physically different from the brains of non-leaders. Today, he feels confident he has found the answers: Leaders do think differently and parts of their brains are different — and much like the human body can be re-shaped and changed with exercise, brains can be changed to enhance and maximize leadership capacities.

Welcome to the future.

Origin Story

Balthazard’s background is in management information systems, not craniums. He was especially interested in studying the differences between successful and failing organizations. Why do some companies get worse when you add technology? “I don’t know if you’ve ever dealt with the cable company,” he says, “but they’re awful. They should be jailed for their customer service.” (No argument.) But what exactly makes a cable company so dysfunctional? Why do some managers succeed while others fail?

Fifteen years ago, Balthazard bumped into a neuroscientist at a leadership conference. They talked shop, and Balthazard suggested — almost as a lark — that the neuroscientist scan the brain of an executive with whom he worked. Balthazard didn’t mention that the executive had anger management issues — occasionally the executive punched the walls and scared employees.

Related: Can Neurofeedback Change Your Brain? 

After the brain scan, the neuroscientist asked the executive if he had ever been hit in the head. At first, the executive didn’t recall any such incident, but the neuroscientist urged him to think harder. After a moment, he recalled blacking out, at the age of seven, after being hit in the head with a baseball.

Balthazard recalls that, before the exec could indicate where he was hit on the head, the neuroscientist did it for him. “Sir,” the neuroscientist asked, “might your problem be anger management issues?”

Balthazard was fascinated. If this neuroscientist knew that one chunk of the brain deals with anger, then couldn’t a different part be identified that deals with the ability to inspire a team or use good judgment? He began devising a protocol to systematically test his theory. Soon he linked up with other neuroscientists — including Robert Thatcher, one of the original researchers in the seminal National Institute of Health Brain Initiative, which led the effort to map the brain.

But Balthazard needed access to data and leaders. In a flash of inspiration, he turned to an organization that specializes in churning out thousands of leaders: the military. He brought his work to West Point and quickly made friends with then-Lt. Colonel Sean Hannah, the director of the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic. Hannah told him, “Some of these guys graduate in the top 10 of their class, and yet, have an equal chance of screwing up in the field as guys who graduate at the end of their class.” Balthazard was given permission to scan the brains of 50 cadets, then fed the data to his research partners.

He scanned more cadets, and then more business leaders — feeding all the data into his growing collection of evidence, searching for patterns and conclusions. Balthazard eventually scanned 700 brains including business leaders, artists, physicians, a billionaire and a major league baseball player who pitched in the World Series.

Now, he has crunched the numbers — but how does all of this data help predict leadership?

How It Works

Before the use of brain scanning technologies like EEGs, organizational theorists used psychometric assessments, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, to evaluate leadership potential. People took written tests, the tests were scored, and researchers evaluated whether or not the results correlated to leadership.

Balthazard began his tests with the cadets and others by doing something similar and used the results as a type of control against his findings in the brain. He had them take a psychometric test that measured what he calls “transformational leadership.” They were asked about 200 questions that determined things like whether the person is “cool under pressure” or can be a “social visionary.”

The cadets’ brains were then scanned and Balthazard’s team compared the results with those of the written tests and the EEG readings.

Just as cartographers have sliced the world into a grid with latitude and longitude, neuroscientists have mapped the brain into 2,390 little boxes, or three-dimensional building blocks, called voxels. Balthazard found that a pattern of light in certain clumps of voxels corresponded to different leadership attributes. He used brain scans alongside the psychometric assessments to find the telling correlations between the two. For example, he says he has found that when people are “cool under pressure,” (as determined from the written evaluation), there’s a higher “pattern of amplitude asymmetry within the two frontal lobes.”

Yet this only takes you so far. It’s fair to ask, “So what?” There might be a correlation, but is this useful? Does this help the cable company, for instance, identify better leaders? “Correlation is just a drop in the bucket,” says Balthazard, his voice growing more excited. “What I’m really interested in, is can we improve this potential? My team is on the cusp of that.”

His underlying theory that the parts of the brain that affect leadership can not only be identified, but changed and enhanced, is based, in large part, on the fact that science has already proven that the brain can be changed. The growing field of neuroplasticity has found that the brain is always evolving, so much so that even as we age we can train our brain to become smarter, sharper, more agile. And it doesn’t require lasers, scalpels or mad scientist-looking helmets. You can do it simply by playing a video game.

Balthazard received his first neurofeedback several years ago, when a neuroscientist put him in a small room on a leather sofa. He put a hat of electrodes on Balthazard’s skull. In front of him was a 50-inch television. The screen showed a dune buggy. In a remarkable exercise, Balthazard says he used his mind to control the buggy.

It might sound like a Jedi mind trick, but here’s how the science works: The neuroscientist picks a trait to enhance — let’s say Balthazard’s example of being “cool under pressure” — and tells the computer to look for the corresponding brain activity, in this instance, amplitude asymmetry within the two frontal lobes. The electrodes scan the brain and send back signals to the computer. The computer then rewards the “right” kind of brain activity by moving the buggy forward. If the subject gets nervous or panics, the brain begins to behave in the “wrong” way, (in our example, exhibiting an absence of amplitude asymmetry), and then the buggy stays still.

After about 10 minutes, even without the conscious knowledge of how to activate certain parts of his brain, Balthazard was moving the buggy — because his brain was still able to hunt for and identify the patterns on its own.

The Implications

“What we’re doing is an entirely passive system,” says Balthazard. “We’re not zapping the brain. We are using a program called NeuroGuide, which has been around for some time. The sensor figures out an electric pattern in a very specific part of the brain, feeds that information to a computer, and then gives you positive or negative feedback.”

And why stop at leadership? The core idea is that a certain attribute — leadership — is clumped in specific regions of the brain, and that by stimulating those regions, we then, in turn, stimulate the attribute. Balthazard has chosen to focus on leadership, but couldn’t the same thing be done with creativity, empathy, judgment or concentration? Researchers, according to Balthazard, are finding that yes, it can.

Pierre Balthazard has used an electrode cap to scan over 700 brains.

Pierre Balthazard has used an electrode cap to scan over 700 brains.

For example, the part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex has been linked with impulse control. As neuroscientist David Eagleman explains in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, a team at Virginia Tech is using neurofeedback to boost willpower. “Imagine that you’d like to get better at resisting chocolate cake. In this experiment, you look at pictures of chocolate cake while getting a brain scan, and researchers determine the regions of your brain involved in the craving. Activity in those regions is represented by a vertical bar on a computer screen that acts as a thermometer for your craving; your job is to make the bar go down.

“If your craving networks are revving high, the bar is high; if you’re suppressing your craving, the bar is low,” explains Eagleman. “You stare at the bar and try to make it go down. Perhaps you have insight into what you’re doing to resist the cake; perhaps it is inaccessible.” Besides the potential for ‘dieting by neuroscience,’ there are an almost limitless number of other applications. Eagleman sees this type of workout as an ethical way to rehabilitate prisoners. Instead of tossing them in jail and throwing away the key, it is possible that scientists could strengthen their impulse control. There are serious moral and even potential legal issues surrounding this type of thing, of course, but right now scientists are focused on finding positive applications.

“When we talk about changing the brain, that’s already being done,” says Dr. David Waldman, a professor of management at Arizona State University and Balthazard’s longtime collaborator. “They’ve been doing it for 10 or 15 years. The cat’s out of the bag,” The two co-edited the just-released book Organizational Neuroscience, which summarizes their research. Numerous studies have found solid evidence that neurofeedback is a useful way to treat ADHD — potentially even more successful, and longer lasting, than medication. In a 2014 study in

Pediatrics, for example, children who were treated with neurofeedback showed measurably reduced symptoms of ADHD, and that benefit held up even six months after treatment.

A scattershot of efforts are underway to test the practical applications of using neurofeedback in unlikely conditions: the military is using neurofeedback to hone the aim of sharpshooters; a test group of golfers used it to try and improve their putting. The results are mixed. A 2015 study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise found that, “Despite causing… more ‘expert-like’ patterns of cortical activity, neurofeedback training failed to selectively enhance performance, as both groups improved their putting performance similarly from the pre-test to the post-test.”

Neither Balthazard nor Waldman think that this is some kind of magic wand. You don’t give a CEO a brain scan, watch him play the video game, and then presto, he’s the next Jack Welch. “It’s not just a matter of changing the brain,” says Waldman. “That’s just the first step. It’s sort of like when you play football, you need to be in shape, but that alone isn’t enough.” Neurofeedback could, though, serve as a kind of training camp. These training camps, while technically possible, are likely a few years from becoming mainstream. Right now the process is clunky. Balthazard needs to use a gel to put these electrodes on the skull, and any movement of the head can disrupt the reading. “No CEO is going to a hospital to do an MRI; it’s as simple as that,” he says. “And they’re not going to put on this electrode if it gives them a bad hair day.”

Yet electrodes should continue to improve as equipment continues to get cheaper. Perhaps some day you’ll buy an electrode hat, synch it to your iPhone, and use that to physically change your brain for any of a variety of reasons. The question might not be if, but when.

For Balthazard, though, it all comes back to leadership. “I am not concerned about potential other uses of this process, I have a singular focus here,” he says. “That’s why I’m dean of a business school. What I’m really interested in is how to make leaders in an organization better. I think we’re very close to being able to do that.”