Your Brain on Leadership

What does Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy” have in common with leadership? Give up? The answer is the amygdala and other brain structures that process emotional information. Both music and leadership evoke emotional and behavioral responses in individuals.

Foot tapping, dancing, singing, happiness, and sadness—most of us have experienced reactions like this to music. Some of us have experienced anger, irritation, and loss of sleep caused by a bad boss. Others, I hope, have experienced the inspiring motivation, uplifting encouragement, and increased self-confidence elicited by a good boss. And some of us have experienced bosses, like music, who induce neither a positive nor a negative reaction. What kind of emotional response do you evoke in others?

Lawyers are well-equipped to be leaders in many respects. Lawyers tend to have above-average intelligence, and are trained to be analytical problem-solvers. But being the smartest, most knowledgeable person in the room does not make a lawyer a good leader. “Effective leadership involves influencing others so that they are motivated to contribute to the achievement of group goals,” Haslam, Reicher, and Platow wrote in The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power.

How much lawyers might confuse using raw intelligence to influence others with leadership may depend on emotionally divorcing the think-like-a-lawyer-training that occurs in law school. Lawyers are taught that “one must detach and remove oneself from the problem and from the individuals being served. Within the domain of the attorney personality is a fundamental belief that emotions get in the way of thinking clearly” David Hall wrote in The Spiritual Revitalization Of The Legal Profession. But the underpinnings of leadership, unlike legal analysis, are emotions.

The study of leadership as a serious academic discipline has been developing for decades. This discipline should not be confused with what Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode calls “leadership lite,” where theory, evidence, and experience are substituted for opinions and platitudes.

One of the earliest leadership theories is known as The Great Man theory, with early traces in Plato’s Republic. Haslam, Reicher, and Platow call to mind Socrates explaining to his student, Adeimantus, that “only a rare class of philosopher-ruler is fit to lead… ” It was believed that leaders were born with traits that made them different and specially equipped for leadership roles. Research has largely discredited The Great Man theory and no single set of traits has emerged to complete leadership’s Rosetta Stone.

In the 1950s, leadership research began to focus on behavior. Professor Andrew Halpin, in a 1956 article titled “The Behavior of Leaders,” argued that “[w]e will greatly increase our understanding of leadership phenomena if we abandon the notion of ‘leadership’ as a trait, and concentrate instead on an analysis of the behavior of leaders.” It is a leader’s behavior that induces an emotional response in others. And one’s behaviors, unlike traits, are more mutable and can change with self-awareness and effort. Leaders, therefore, are developed and made over time. Do you take time to reflect on which behaviors you engage in that have a positive and negative impact on others?

One of the first behavioral theories of leadership is known as Consideration and Initiating Structure. Consideration refers to people-oriented behaviors and is marked by a leader’s interpersonal skills, trust, care and support, treatment of others as equals, listening ability, and commitment to seeking input from others. Structure refers to task-oriented behavior that focuses on meeting goals, organizing activities and relationships, and directing subordinates. Where do you fall on the consideration and structure scale?

Professor Halpin studied the Consideration and Initiating Structure theory using B-29 aircraft commanders in the 1950s. This study found that superior officers were more inclined to give higher performance ratings to commanders the more they engaged in initiating structure behaviors, and the less they engaged in consideration behaviors. In contrast, subordinates were more inclined to be satisfied with their commanders the more they engaged in consideration behaviors, and the less they engaged in initiating structure behaviors. This dated study and subsequent research illustrate the complex relationship between leadership and the impact it has on others and organization outcomes. Do you portray different leadership styles to your superiors than to your subordinates? Do you value your superior’s and your subordinate’s opinion of your leadership differently?

Leadership theory continued to evolve, and in the 1970s, historian and political scientist James McGregor Burns proposed a new model based on two types of behaviors: transactional and transformational. Transactional leaders tend to work within the status quo and establish quid pro quo relationships. According to Burns, most leaders tend to be transactional and motivate followers by “exchanging one thing for another”—such as jobs for votes, or work effort for higher pay. Nothing beyond these exchanges binds together leaders and followers.

Transformational leaders, on the other hand, tend to be more effective than transactional leaders. Transformational leaders are change agents and motivate followers by being good role models, developing followers’ skills and abilities, and inspiring followers to work toward a collective purpose. According to Burns, a transformational leader “looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs [think Maslow’s Hierarchy], and engages the full person of the follower.” Transformational leadership results in mutually stimulating relationships. Are you more of a transactional or transformational leader?

The discussion of transformational leadership brings us back to the amygdala and the relationship between leadership and Williams’ hit song, “Happy.” Like studies about music and the brain, recent research has found that transformational leadership can be identified by certain brain patterns. In one study, leaders whose subordinates rated them as more transformational had distinct brain patterns as measured by neurological imaging. This study is mentioned to convince highly skeptical lawyers that leadership development is as much of a science as it is an art.

Transformational leadership is among the most researched styles of leadership, and has been found to be one of the most effective across various organizations and levels. Lawyers who are interested in developing into transformational leaders should make a concerted effort to continuously reflect on their behavior and how it affects others, and strive to make the following behaviors part of their repertoire:

  • Idealized Influence: Become a positive role model for others through ethical conduct. Talk about your most important values and beliefs, and the importance of having a strong sense of purpose in the work you do. Your behavior should illustrate your commitment to the interests of your organization over your own self-interest. The way you live and behave—not just your accomplishments—should instill pride in others for being associated with you.
  • Inspirational Motivation: Be an agent for change. Talk positively and enthusiastically about the future, the work you do, and others. Develop mission and vision statements that articulate where your work, your practice group, or your organization is heading—depending on your organizational role. Seek input on, and build consensus around, your mission and vision statements. Demonstrate persistence and determination in the face of adversity. Get to know others’ goals and help them achieve those goals.
  • Intellectual Stimulation: Question the status quo. Be creative in your work, and encourage the creativity in others. Look at problems from multiple angles, and encourage others to do the same. Challenge assumptions underlying strategies and plans, and welcome and value input from others.
  • Individualized Consideration: Demonstrate empathy for others. Become an active listener. Get to know, and value, the individual needs of others. Recognize and emphasize the value of diversity. Provide learning opportunities for others, and become a coach, teacher, and mentor to help others develop their skills and abilities. Delegate, and empower others to become leaders.

Leadership is a complex science, and there is no one right way to becoming an effective leader. But just like it takes time, effort, and experience to develop legal skills—it takes time, effort, and experience to develop leadership skills.

About the Author

Matthew T. Besmer is an attorney for the state of California and is Vice Chairman of the Law Practice Division’s Lawyer Leader Interest Group. He is completing a doctoral dissertation about the leadership behavior of young lawyers. He may be contacted at

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