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Neuroleadership: The Appliance of Neuroscience to Leadership


Neuroleadership‘We’ve finally found our silver bullet‘ says one HR professional in a promotional video for a conference on Neuroleadership.

If that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine; perhaps it should. Silver bullets come from the same shop as snake-oil! So we have to ask,

‘how solid is one of the latest big ideas in management: neuroleadership?’

The principle, of course, is solid. Because what it seeks to do is bring the findings of neuroscience into the practice of leadership.

Why Do We Need Neuroleadership?

I don’t want to start with the assumption that we do. The topic is little more than ten years old, so we can’t know definitively what it adds to our practice of management and leadership.

But, what we do need, indisputably, is more research into ways we can improve leadership in a reliable way. And science is the methodology we need to use.

We can also say, with a lot of confidence, that neuroscience is a promising branch to look for the ideas we want. After all, your brain controls your actions, and your actions inform your leadership.

The only reservation, therefore, is the extent to which the proposed solutions actually work in the real world. And, on that, the jury is still out.

Therefore, in this article, I want to offer you a primer on the subject of neuroleadership, so you can start your own deeper research.

What is Neuroleadership?

Neuroleadership is a term coined by Dr David Rock, in a 2006 article for Strategy+Business: The Neuroscience of Leadership. It is the application of what we learn from the study of neuroscience to the discipline of leadership. Neuroleadership promises tools and insights into:

  • Leadership development
  • Management training and coaching
  • Change management
  • Workplace motivation
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Organisational development
  • Performance management

Neuroleadership looks at how people operate in social contexts, to:

  • Influence one another
  • Collaborate
  • Solve problems
  • Make decisions
  • Regulate their emotional state
  • Motivate themselves and others
  • Facilitate change

How to Bring Neuroleadership into your Management and Leadership Practice

This is a huge and rapidly developing field. David Rock’s Neuroleadership Institute leads the way in disseminating, consulting, and training the learnings from the field. And on their website, you’ll be able to access some of the articles from their journal, and read some of the frequent and excellent blog posts.

For a comprehensive primer, I suspect (because I haven’t read it) that the best source book is ‘The Handbook of Neuroleadership’ by David Rock and Al H Ringleb  (US|UK).

What I’d like to do is offer an introduction to the model at the core of Rock’s approach to neuroleadership: the SCARF model.

The SCARF Model

Scarf is an acronym describing five fundamental human needs or motivators, that apply to the workplace, and are underpinned by research into neuroscience:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness


Our brains are wired to be competitive. We get a rush when we win… at even the most trivial thing.

On the other hand, losing, and the fear of losing triggers a threat response that diminishes our thinking capacity. So focusing on status items that can lead to feelings of being ‘under’ can be counterproductive. Financial reward is a good example. Rock also cites 360 degree feedback as a potential status threat.

On the other hand, recognition and congratulations for work well done have an unambiguously positive impact on our sense of status. So does the feeling that our work has meaning and that we are valued. A final facor is the extent to which we each feel we are doing a good job. A sense of mastery of a new skill also boosts our sense of status.


When we are uncertain, we become alert, fearful, and tense. This is not a good way to be. Of course, too much certainty is boring, and we need enough of it to stay interested.

But, too much uncertainty can leave us indecisive and slow to respond. We may feel overwhelmed and even panic. It will certainly hit our confidence in our leaders and damage our own self-confidence. So it is a vital leadership role to give a base level of certainty to your people.


The biggest source of stress for human beings is not feeling in control. So, granting control, or autonomy, is a counter to stress. It is also a route to learning and self-confidence. It demonstrates trust too.

And it’s worth noting that research shows that elders living in nursing homes have enhanced life expectancies when given more autonomy in how they live their lives. Having all your decisions made for you may just be life-threatening!


Do we really need brain science to tell us that building relationships with other people is a good thing, and denying others that opportunity is wrong?

But, tell us it does, in many different ways. So we must emphasise creating a social space in our workplaces if we want to get the best from the people who work there.


Here’s another thing we all know when we examine our experiences:

‘Human beings are wired for fairness.’

And now neuroscience backs up what John Stacy Adams already told us with his Equity Theory.

Regular readers of this blog will recognise strong overlaps between Rock’s SCARF model, Alderfer’s ERG (Existence – Relatedness – Growth) Model, and Ryan and Deci’s Self Determination Theory (SDT).


What is Your experience of Neuroleadership?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Have you had training in this, and applied it? What results have you observed? Please leave them in the comments below.

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2 thoughts on “Neuroleadership: The Appliance of Neuroscience to Leadership

  1. Do you have a train the trainer seminar?

    1. I am afraid not. But there are a number of good providers in many countries.

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