Those leaders who were found to be more adaptable and complex in psychological studies appeared to have brains that function differently from those of less adaptable leaders, according to the study.
This fusion of neuroscience and leadership research could one day revolutionize how organizations assess and develop effective and adaptive leaders, according to the researchers.
"Once we have confirmed how the brain works in these leaders, we can create an 'expert' profile," said the study's lead author, Sean Hannah, PhD, of Wake Forest University.
"This profile can help us develop brain training methods to enhance brain functioning in leaders, such as the neurofeedback techniques that have been successfully used with elite athletes, concert musicians and financial traders," Hannah added.
Officers were defined as being more psychologically complex if they had a more diverse sense of their own abilities and accomplishments as leaders. For example, complex leaders described themselves as filling more leadership roles - such as mentor, team leader and spokesperson - and possessing a diverse set of skills and attributes within these roles. Also, leaders who were more complex effectively worked their way through a challenging four-part military leadership scenario.
Brain networks in the frontal and prefrontal lobes of the most complex and adaptable leaders - areas associated with self-regulation, decision-making and memory - were more complex and differentiated compared to those of leaders who were determined not to be very complex, according to neuroimaging.
Ranging in rank from officer cadet to major, 103 volunteers were recruited from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for the study. Eighty-seven of the officers were men and the average age was 24.
The officers had an average of four years of military leadership experience. All went through a medical screening and completed a standardized survey to measure how complex a leader they saw themselves.
Former military officers with significant experience in these types of situations rated the officers' responses to the scenario based on their adaptability, situational awareness and decisions.
Leaders who had a more complex sense of their leadership skills and greater neurological complexity were found to be more adaptive and effective leaders in these scenarios.
The study was published online in the APA Journal of Applied Psychology.