Understanding and applying research about how the workings of the brain influence decision-making have the potential to give us the kind of leadership we deserve. Readers will learn just how the brain works when it comes to making decisions.

Medicine leaped ahead in effectiveness when it gained a foundation in biology and chemistry. So did engineering when it finally gained a foundation in physics. But leadership, which makes so many things happen in all societies, has never had an equivalent foundation in any science. Leaders as far back as we know have managed to lead anyway, but it can be argued that there has been at least as much poor or downright evil leadership as there has been good leadership.

There is a need, then, for a theory of leadership built on a scientific foundation. Several fields of science, including neuroscience and evolutionary biology, are finally in a position to provide that foundation. My book, Driven to Lead: Good, Bad, and Misguided Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2010), is an attempt to assemble a unified scientific theory of leadership from the recent groundswell of research into the workings of the human brain as it makes decisions, as well as from recent research into the turning points in our own evolution.

The result, I believe, is an explanation of leadership that addresses such basic questions as:

  • What is leadership?
  • Who is able to exercise leadership?
  • How can leaders resolve seemingly incompatible demands?
  • How can business leaders balance profitability with care for others?
  • What roles do ethics and morality play in leadership?
  • Can we define “good” or “bad” leadership?
  • Can leadership be taught?

A new kind of decision-making

Leadership is nothing if not decision-making. Early humans evolved a unique decision-making process that allowed them to survive very successfully as a species. While other animals evolved specialized physical traits and behavioral instincts that helped them fulfill their needs and defend themselves against threats in a particular environment, early humans took a different evolutionary path.

Rather than rely on a set of specialized instincts, humans became able to react intelligently and creatively to a much wider variety of circumstances than any other animal. And while early humans were not physically very powerful as individuals, they became extremely powerful in groups because they actually cared about at least some of their fellow humans, not just themselves and their own offspring. In short, humans learned to get what they needed and to deal with threats by taking into account not only their own needs, but also the needs of their companions, along with whatever knowledge and experience could be brought to bear. Such an inclusive and resourceful type of decision-making eventually led to complex human societies, to organizations of all kinds, and to leadership.

How decisions are made—on the inside

To see how our evolution shapes the everyday practice of leadership, we need to see the form that our decision-making process takes inside the brain. Humans evolved four basic drives, each operating independently in the brain, each essential for our survival as a species, and each an equal component of good leadership. These are:

  • The drive to acquire—to get what we need or value, from food, shelter and offspring, to promotion, expertise, or excitement.
  • The drive to defend—to protect what we need or value, including our company’s market share and reputation.
  • The drive to bond—to form long-term, trusting, caring relationships that may provide but are not limited to mutual benefit. These include relationships with coworkers, customers, suppliers, and investors.
  • The drive to comprehend—to make sense of the world and ourselves, which includes forecasting, inventing, and problem solving.

In any given situation—business or otherwise—each of the drives responds with its own imperative. As one can easily imagine, these imperatives can conflict with each other. Imagine the CEO of a company whose business has dropped by 30 percent in the current economic crisis. The drive to defend tells him to cut staff before he goes out of business. His drive to bond tells him not to cast loyal and experienced employees overboard, especially in such a high-unemployment economy.

This conflict of drives does not paralyze our CEO’s brain. Rather, it sets in motion a process in which another part of his brain, the prefrontal cortex, gathers together the conflicting imperatives from his four drives, along with his storehouse of knowledge and experience (located in other parts of the brain), and suggests different courses of action (which are “previewed” in yet another part of the brain) to see how the drives will respond. Usually, this process can arrive at a solution that is at least “good enough” for all four drives.

What we have here is a decision-making process that deals with a complex world, not by specializing in how to survive in one tiny portion of that world, but by inviting the complexity in and dealing with it as it comes. In particular, due to the drive to bond, this process must take into account whatever other parties or stakeholders are involved.  Humans are unique in having evolved a form of group survival in which individuals depend on other individuals not to follow any specific instincts to help each other but rather to decide to help each other, motivated by a fundamental drive to form and maintain lasting, trusting relationships. This drive to bond must negotiate, as it were, with the other three drives, but it negotiates as an equal. Needless to say, people do betray each other in small and large ways all the time. Nevertheless, the scale, versatility, and overall dependability of human cooperation—by decision rather than by instinct—is what makes all our collective achievements possible, from raising a family to running a company. It is no accident, then, that my description of the decision-making process that takes place in the prefrontal cortex amounts to a working definition of good leadership in today’s companies, organizations, and communities.

I emphasize that I am not offering a metaphor; this is actually what is happening in the brain. Throughout the first section of my book, I describe research, ranging from MRI scans to field studies, in which researchers can “see” different parts of this decision-making process in action. For example, brain-imaging studies have shown one part of the brain (the nucleus acumbens in the limbic area) “lighting up” with increased blood flow when people who had been asked to think about either making a donation to a charity or keeping the money for themselves chose to think about donating—the drive to bond in action. Another study found that when people “caught on” to something new to them, opiate receptors in a particular part of the brain produced a chemical “high”—the drive to comprehend in action.

Keeping Our Decision-Making Process on Track

Of course, this decision-making process is not perfect. Leaders certainly make mistakes and lead their groups to failure rather than success. In the corporate world, the drive to acquire has often enough overwhelmed the drive to bond. Here is an important opportunity for a scientifically grounded theory of leadership to offer practical help. Knowing how the decision-making process works in our own brains—and in the brains of most of the other people we are dealing with—makes it easier for us to see when we’re not giving all four drives their proper due.

In Driven to Lead, I give a number of examples of companies whose performance improved when they began to take a four-drive approach to leadership. (None of them would have used that name for it, but we can see that they are doing it.) An oil company drastically altered the social culture, the safety record, and the business performance of two of its offshore rigs by attending to all four drives rather than just the drives to acquire and defend. (These are the two drives than any animal has and it is no coincidence that a supervisor on one of the oil rigs recalled some of his men acting like “a pack of lions.”) As a result of good leadership, the workers on the rig began to pay attention to their drives to bond and to comprehend by sharing more information about risks, speaking up when something seemed wrong, helping each other with dangerous or physically demanding tasks, and generally keeping an eye out for each other rather than taking such pride in being macho—“every man for himself.”  Although no one involved had ever heard of my four-drive theory of leadership, the workers’ comments show an awareness that their drives to bond and to comprehend, long suppressed, were finally being addressed.

Keeping the corporate decision-making process on track

The theory of leadership presented in Driven to Lead also sheds important light on a very large problem today which involves corporations but affects entire countries—the inability of national and even international entities to keep up with the sometimes very destructive practices of large or multinational corporations. This issue recently played out in Washington with the much-contested passage of the financial services reform package. This new legislation is seen by one side as distinctly overdone regulation and by the other as grossly underdone.

The four-drive theory of leadership puts such contests in a different light. Individual human beings accomplish as much as they do while getting along as well as they do by constantly juggling their four drives, balancing a need to get what they want with a need to get along with their fellow humans. The government of the United States was set up by its founders in a remarkably similar way—a balance of powers that requires important decisions to take into account very different and sometimes contradictory demands. It certainly doesn’t work perfectly, but it was certainly a huge improvement over previous types of government.

Then, along came the modern corporation, a creature of the nineteenth century. Here is an organization legally dedicated to the drive to acquire and not to any of the others; in many cases, its board and management are required to favor the drive to acquire (that is, profitability) and the drive to defend (that is, corporate survival) over the drives to bond and to comprehend. “Well, of course,” you might say. “That’s what a corporation is supposed to do.” But the four-drive theory tells us something different: That a corporation can and should be dedicated to all four drives because that is the way human beings have evolved to accomplish the most good together (which includes making money) and do the least harm to each other in the process. Individual corporate leaders may try their best to lead this way, but they will almost always find themselves up against the corporate charter itself.

In Driven to Lead, I therefore propose a different kind of corporate charter, in which the power of the owners does not overwhelm the voices of the other stakeholders—employees, customers, suppliers, and, to varying degrees, the general public—affected by the corporation’s actions. This is not something I have made up. The “stakeholder model” of corporate governance has been widely used in Germany and Japan and, in my book I describe two American companies, Medtronic and Nucor, who have put elements of the stakeholder model into practice. Without the four-drive theory, the stakeholder model sounds a bit radical or, heaven forbid, “socialist.” But it makes perfect sense in light of what we now know about how the human brain has evolved to make decisions for group survival and prosperity.

I believe the theory presented in Driven to Lead can also help us understand—and avoid—such corporate horror shows as the mortgage-backed security frenzy and meltdown, and the earlier rise and fall of Enron, both of which are discussed in the book. The man on the street looks on these fiascos and says, with some justice, that here were a bunch of greedy crooks that were powerful enough to take thousands of innocent employees, customers, and investors down with them, not to mention the millions affected by a worldwide financial crisis.  I take a somewhat different view. Here were corporations whose governance structure lacked the equivalent of a drive to bond and a drive to comprehend. Had those drives been part of their charters, along with a decision-making process that gave all four drives their full weight, these companies would have had a way to stop themselves. As it was, a comparatively small group’s drive to acquire was being satisfied spectacularly and there was simply nothing in the corporate “prefrontal cortex” to oppose it. If only.