Law, leadership, and the brain

Thanks to Stephanie West Allen’s Idealawg, I’ve been mulling over a couple of interesting articles that connect neuroscience with the law and with leadership.  First up is a Wall Street Journal article titled, Except in One Career, Our Brains Seem Built for Optimism.  Research suggests not only that the human brain is predisposed to an optimistic view of the world, but that the effect of moderate optimism is quite beneficial… Except in law.  From the article:

The influence of optimism on human behavior is so pervasive that it must have survival value, researchers speculate, and may give us the ability to act in the face of uncertain odds.

Medical evidence is suggestive. Optimistic people at risk for skin cancer are more likely to use sunscreen. Optimistic coronary artery bypass patients are more likely than pessimists to be taking vitamins, eating low-fat foods and joining a cardiac-rehab program five years after surgery — and living longer, studies show.

“If even half the time our actions work out well, our life is going to turn out for the better,” Dr. Phelps said. “If you are pessimistic, you are unlikely to even try.”

Indeed, the researchers suspect that the breakdown of this brain network may contribute to clinical depression. All in all, Dr. Seligman said, optimists tend to do better in life than their talents alone might suggest.

Except lawyers.

Surveying law students at the University of Virginia, he found that pessimists got better grades, were more likely to make law review and, upon graduation, received better job offers. There was no scientific reason. “In law,” he said, “pessimism is considered prudence.”

David Giacalone of f/k/a offers an interesting rejoinder that suggests a lawyer will be far more effective if he or she expresses both optimism and pessimism: “To be truly good at issue-spotting and at giving excellent advice (as a good consigliere must to survive), you need to be able to envision both good and bad outcomes, and all those in between.”  Amen.

The second article, It’s All in the Mind,  questions the impact of “neuroleadership,” which it defines as “a blend of certain findings from neuroscience with a set of leadership practices and principles designed to encourage more consultative, creative and empathetic corporate chiefs.”  The article identifies four “elements of brain function that are deemed most applicable to business leadership:”

    • the ability to think more creatively and use intuition by improving attention and changing thinking habits;
    • the ability to interconnect and empathise, which is enhanced when we have lower-frequency brain waves or slow down our thinking;
    • the understanding of how the brain reacts to change and the need for positive feedback to help create and reinforce new ways of operating; and
    • the health effects on the entire body from the brain continually working under chronic stress and with excess adrenaline.

Neuroleadership purports to offer scientific evidence to support tools and techniques for leadership development that might be less palatable in hard-driving business settings absent such evidence: “With many years’ experience of talking to business people about topics such as emotions and spirituality, [Daniel] Byrnes [consultant and lecturer in leadership and change management at Australian School of Business in Sydney] says when the idea can be backed by science it is easier to accept. ‘We can measure this stuff’,’ he adds.”

Howard Gardner, Harvard Graduate School of Education academic and author of the bestseller Changing Minds, has sounded a note of skepticism about the potential benefits of neuroleadership: “I can’t think of anything a leader should do differently because of what we know about the brain.”  Time will tell, but it will be interesting to see how business — and lawyers — react if neuroscientific evidence does indeed support the “softer” leadership skills.

And for those interested in applied neurosciences, I heartily recommend Stephanie West Allen’s other blog, Brains on Purpose, where she collaborates with Jeffrey Schwartz, MD to address neuroscience and conflict resolution.

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