Assess Your Team

The Four Things You Need to Know about The Neurobiology of Leadership Assessments

For more learning and insights on thinking, mindsets and brain science, check out my full video report from the 2011 Neuroleadership Summit.

In our presentation on the Neurobiology of Leadership Assessments at the Neuroleadership Summit last week, Mark Schar from Stanford and I concluded that in this early stage of this field of research, there are four points we have to pay attention to.

We need to define leadership: The clarity of the research on this is cloudy at best. It seems obvious that if we want to assess leadership, we need to have some clear definition of what it is and what we are trying to measure.

Two differing perspectives can be found in the business and academic worlds. Business tends to look at leadership as a vital key to organization success, often citing guru CEOs like Jack Welch: “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.”

Academia however, is much more skeptical, perceiving leadership as poorly defined, difficult to measure and situational, better represented by a Casey Stengel quote: “The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.”

Defining what it is and what we intend to measure is critical the evaluation of a leadership assessment. In a pilot study we conducted for the session, it was clear the assessments known and most used by business were not the same as those known and used by the academic community. Their reasons for using assessments are also different: Business uses them to make better decisions; academia is typically looking to make a discovery.

We learn about leadership from assessments: Be clear on what YOU want to learn. The hundreds of thousands of assessments processed each year would seem to indicate that we are learning something. Our pilot study showed that those in business had a range of application arenas, as shown below.


Whatever the application, one helpful way to differentiate between assessments is to look at the construct each instrument is based on. The 16 assessments in our pilot study were equally divided between these four construct clusters:

Personality: Individual, intrinsic motivation

Behavioral: Individual behaviors as perceived by others

Talent/Interest: Individual skills and interests

Cognitive: Individual preferences in processing and problem solving

We focused on the cognitive construct to address our next question.

Neuroscience might measure leadership: What do your learners need to know and why? Did I mention this was a huge topic? Assuming we can all agree on the definition of what we are measuring as leadership, our initial scan of the research uncovered two assessments where there is a neurological research connection.

The research on the Neo Five Factor showed a relationship between brain volume and several of the factors. The research on the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument’s (HBDI®) revealed neurological data that related to each of the four factors of the Whole Brain® Model. The real question then emerges: What does this tell us? How do we decide what constitutes “validity?”

We asked the audience to select what was most important for them in the selection of an assessment:

A. Statistical validity, research basis and pedigree.

B. Reliability, administration, practicality, longitudinal studies and references.

C. User’s perceived value and experience, ease of applicability and face validity.

D. Observed insights, visual appeal, discovery/aha’s and conceptual framework validity.

Our audience then split into four groups based on their answer to the above question and discussed what was most important to measure—and how that differed for business and academia. Members of each group* vehemently defended their point of view.

What is yours? How about your learners? What do they need to know and why? How does that impact your selection process?

Academia and business should converge to advance research on the neurobiology of leadership assessments. There is a great opportunity to further pursue research in this domain. We need more research! If the worlds (you might even call them tribes) of business and academia came together we could take this research to the next level.

A special interest group emerged at the conference on this topic. Let me know if you are interested in the conversation or if would to learn more about our findings. Email me at, and post your thoughts in the comments below.

*discreetly sorted based on the four quadrants of the Whole Brain® Model

Get a comparison of employee assessment tools

Tags: leadership development, Brain Research, HBDI, Whole Brain Thinking, Neuroleadership

The four-color, four-quadrant graphic, HBDI® and Whole Brain® are trademarks of Herrmann Global, LLC.



see all

The Whole Brain Business Book 2nd Edition

Read the first two chapters and order your copy today!