Leadership is getting more difficult, leaders are getting younger, and the path to leadership is getting shallower. Cultivating leaders is a competitive strategy—but existing models to identify potential are based on either self-reporting or manager reporting, each entailing obvious bias risk.

At Pick Stars Early (And Transition Them Better), the opening keynote session of the 2015 NeuroLeadership Summit, research and business panelists met to discuss neuroscience-based models of identifying potential.

Dr. Kevin Ochsner, Director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Columbia University, discussed four assessable skill areas that are clear harbingers of leadership and that can be measured through purpose-designed laboratory tests. The idea is that these tests could be developed into ways of measuring potential early in someone’s employment with an organization.

  • FOCUS SKILLS refer to the ability to take in information accurately. The ability to focus is an “executive function” of the brain to use selective attention. A leader will not only be able to home in on the essential within the noise but also know when to shift between the concrete (the “what”) and the abstract (the “why”).
  • LEARNING: When learning is done according to principles described by the AGES model (Attention, Generation, Emotion, Spacing), it can activate reward centers in the brain and generate lasting knowledge.
  • SOCIAL SKILLS: Leaders are effective at reading other people and influencing them. This is the domain of building connections through empathy and understanding, as well as earning trust by valuing “prosocial goals”—aims that are good for the group but that may require self-regulation (e.g., you want to succeed in a team project, so you overlook that a co-worker snapped at you).
  • PERSONAL SKILLS refer to knowing who you are as well as what you want and how to get it. Much more research is needed in this area, but it has been shown, for example, that grit (i.e., passion and perseverance in pursuing goals) can better predict success than technical skills.

What we know from the research is that these skills vary in their degree of trainability and their generalizability (e.g., focus during a computer game test in a laboratory doesn’t necessarily translate to focus on a project at work). The challenge for companies will be to develop tests and assessments that aren’t obtrusive in the workplace, according to panel participant Kathleen McCarthy of American Express. Competitive organizations would do well to explore the promise of neuroscience-based methods to predict leadership earlier and more reliably.