The Neuroscience of Inspirational Leadership: The Importance of Collective-Oriented Language and Shared Group Membership

  • Molenberghs P
  • Prochilo G
  • Steffens N
 et al. 
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Effective leaders are believed to inspire followers by providing inclusive visions of the future that followers can identify with. In the present study, we examined the neural mechanisms underlying this process, testing key hypotheses derived from transformational and social identity approaches to leadership. While undergoing functional MRI, supporters from the two major Australian political parties (Liberal vs. Labor) were presented with inspirational collective-oriented and noninspirational personal-oriented statements made by in-group and out-group leaders. Imaging data revealed that inspirational (rather than noninspirational) statements from in-group leaders were associated with increased activation in the bilateral rostral inferior parietal lobule, pars opercularis, and posterior midcingulate cortex: brain areas that are typically implicated in controlling semantic information processing. In contrast, for out-group leaders, greater activation in these areas was associated with noninspirational statements. In addition, noninspirational statements by in-group (but not out-group) leaders resulted in increased activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area typically associated with reasoning about a person’s mental state. These results show that followers processed identical statements qualitatively differently as a function of leaders’ group membership, thus demonstrating that shared identity acts as an amplifier for inspirational leadership communication.

Author-supplied keywords

  • attention
  • cognitive dissonance
  • confirmation bias
  • fMRI
  • group membership
  • leadership
  • mentalizing
  • mirror system
  • semantic processing
  • social identity
  • social neuroscience
  • theory of mind
  • transformational leadership

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