What does it mean to be a leader? Many people believe it means being a great communicator, which often requires empathy and understanding. A new study finds interpersonal neural synchronization (INS) between leaders and followers is significantly higher than the mental harmony between followers and followers. Even more, what leaders say is much more important than how often they speak for creating this synchronicity.

“These results suggest that leaders emerge because they are able to say the right things at the right time,” wrote the authors in their published paper.

To better understand leadership, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences asked 11 groups of three people — each threesome was either exclusively male or exclusively female students — to discuss a moral dilemma for just a few minutes. Meanwhile, these researchers measured students’ brain activities using functional near-infrared spectroscopy. After the discussion, the students as well as external judges (who looked at recordings of the discussions) selected one participant as group leader; in most cases, their selections matched.

Seeing Through Another's Eyes

Next, the scientists analyzed the spectroscopy results to understand brain area activity during the discussion groups. They focused on activity occurring in the temporo-parietal junction, located in the cerebral cortex where the temporal and parietal lobes meet. This brain region is important for empathy and for understanding others’ moods and mental states and also may enable one person to recognize another’s perspective and intentions. Generally, increased neural synchronization in this brain area would indicate the emergence of a relationship.

Interestingly, during the discussion, the left temporo-parietal junction in the brains of the students began to become active in unison with that of the leader. Whenever a leader spoke, a stronger neural synchronization was produced than when a follower ventured a thought. So, while neural synchronization occurs in both directions, it was more pronounced from leader to followers.

The researchers found that verbal communication induced stronger neural synchronization than the non-verbal communication during the discussion. What group members said was much more important than how often they speak, the scientists observed as well. Those who simply talked more did not emerge, in all cases, as leaders of their group.

Surprisingly, the students’ brain activity also showed they had made a decision about their leader, "subconsciously," even before the end of the discussion. (Note: the scientists only recorded activity in the left temporo-parietal junction. The right counterpart, then, may also play a role in leadership even if the study contains no evidence of this.)

“When leaders initiated the communication, it means they thought about the others' view and began to express their suggestion based on what followers said,” Dr. Jing Jiang, a student at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, stated in a press release. “During this very short time, they synchronized their brain activity with that of their followers.”

Source: Jiang J, Chen C, Dai B, et al. Leader emergence through interpersonal neural synchronization. PNAS. 2015.