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Behavioural Science and Practice in Leadership Development

Special issue call for papers from Leadership & Organization Development Journal

Guest Editors:

Professor Carla Millar, Ashridge Business School & University of Twente
Dr Vicki Culpin, Ashridge Business School
Lee Waller, Ashridge Business School

This Special Issue will address one of the pressing issues and key priorities in the changing world of executive development. The business environment is growing ever more complex, and the demands placed on executives to deal with this complexity are growing in equal measure. In line with the Leadership & Organization Development Journal’s objective of ‘discovering new, more effective ways of managing in organizations’, this Special Issue will explore how research in the behavioural sciences can inform our understanding of the process and experience of learning, to help improve the practice of executive education in developing leaders who can prosper in today’s complex environment. The focus of this Special Issue will be on the ‘how to’ of knowledge transfer from the field of science to management theory and leadership development.

How has our environment changed?

In the past decade the nature of work has become increasingly complex. Technological advances, widespread globalisation, and increased diversity have resulted in a highly competitive climate which is fast moving and ever changing. Working across geographies, functions and cultures presents today’s leaders with greater challenges than ever before.

A survey of chief executives identified that CEOs believe they now have to operate in a substantially more volatile, uncertain and complex world. Their businesses must deal with ‘increasingly interconnected economies, enterprises, societies and governments’. 79% of these CEO’s shared the view that they will face even greater complexity in the future, and reported serious doubts about their abilities to manage the challenges and opportunities arising from such rapidly escalating complexity.

What does this change require from our leaders?

To cope with this changing environment, future leaders need to engage in more strategic and systems thinking, work more collaboratively, and be better able to manage and lead through ambiguity and change. EDA found that critical thinking and the ability to recognise assumptions, evaluate alternatives, and draw valid conclusions was considered the number one priority for executives. 

The complexity of this modern environment also means that individual leaders alone will struggle to tackle and resolve today’s challenges, and as such there is a required move towards more collaborative leadership; a bringing together of different stakeholders to learn from and with each other, and build and manage partnerships both within and across organisations.

What does this mean for leadership development?

Today’s complex environment requires continuous improvements in the quality of leadership, and the onus is on leadership development practitioners to develop new, innovative educational techniques and explore new avenues for increasing the effectiveness of management development (Grossman, Salas, Pavlas & Rosen, 2013).

It is the proposition of this Special Issue that these innovations can be advanced through a better understanding of the science behind the process and experience of executive development: the social psychology of the classroom; the developmental stages of cognitive maturity; the impact of personality on the experience of learning; and the cognitive and neurological processes involved in learning.

Similar advancements are already being made in the study of organisational behaviour, such as the emerging fields of neuro-marketing which attempts to understand the biology of consumer behaviour (Butler, 2008), and organizational cognitive neuroscience (OCN) which is concerned with the interaction of our underlying brain systems and our cognitive processes in determining behaviour within organisations (Lee, Senior & Butler, 2012). OCN researchers contend that it is not possible to understand behaviour within organisations without understanding the social psychology, cognitive processes, and ultimately neurological systems which underlie these behaviours, and call for a symbiotic approach to the study of organisational phenomenon (Senior, Lee & Butler, 2011).

So what does an understanding of these underlying processes imply for the practice of leadership development? Waldeman, Balthazard & Peterson (2011) offer some interesting thoughts in this regard, and in agreement with Senior et al. (2011) they argue that a collaboration between neuroscience, behavioural and management expertise is necessary to apply this research to leadership development. One question they pose is whether, by identifying the neurological basis of for example, inspirational or visionary leadership, can we then develop strategies to train the brain for better performance? Similarly, can an understanding of the biology of consumer behaviour help illuminate the processes by which the learner responds to being taught?

Further implications for leadership development can be inferred from the neurological understanding of the malleability of our brains, and the impact that experience and learning new skills has on the way our brains work (Yin, et al., 2009), as well as the knowledge that recurring activity strengthens neural connections and leads to ‘secondary repertoires’ which support behaviours in organisations (Elderman, 1993). Such insights have important implications for the ‘trainability’, rather than inherent nature, of effective leadership. Neuroscience, and specifically the theory of fight or flight, also helps us understand the impact of our sympathetic nervous system response to stressful situations on our ability to perform during and learn from those situations (Kassam, 2009), which has implications for the use of challenging experiential interventions in leadership development programmes. Other neuroscience research also suggests that perceived reward may be related to improved learning (Howard-Jones et al., 2011), which again has implications for the incorporation of reward or elements of competition into the design of development initiatives.

Developmental psychology offers similar insights, through for example, the understanding that cognitive development does not stop in early adulthood, and that we continue through stages of mental development throughout our adult lives. With each developmental step, we are able to make better sense of our world, adapt faster, identify patterns, arrive at more complex solutions, and are better able to deal with change (McGuire and Rhodes, 2009).  Are there opportunities for executive education to accelerate this vertical development?

The psychology of personality may also hold valuable lessons around the impact of individual personality traits such as communication apprehension, on the effectiveness of adult learning, and as such has implications for the design of management development as well as facilitation skills in the classroom (Blumer, Baldwin & Ryan, 2013).

Finally, if as suggested above, these changing requirements also herald a move towards more collaborative leadership, what lessons can we draw from social psychology that may inform the development of initiatives that move away from instructor based learning and provide opportunities for social learning through peer-to-peer networks, mentoring, and collaborative online forums?
Through this Special Issue we intend to offer an opportunity for academics to present their research and to stimulate debate and further work in this area, in order to advance our understanding of the process and experience of learning, and translate the research into the practice of executive development. We focus on the ‘how to’ of knowledge transfer from the field of science to management theory and leadership development.

To this end both conceptual and empirical submissions are welcome that address the learning process and practice of management education and incorporate any of the following topics, or any other relevant to the theme of the Special Issue.

  • Exploring the cognition behind learning to improve the way we teach
  • The neurological underpinnings and social processes of executive education
  • Exploiting the neuroplasticity of our brains to enhance our capacity to learn
  • Engaging motivation for reward to improve the effectiveness of learning
  • Applying an understanding of the biology of consumer behaviour to the classroom
  • Moving beyond competence development
  • Methods and processes to accelerate vertical development
  • The social psychology of the classroom experience 
  • The impact of personality on learning and interaction in the classroom
  • Understanding the psychobiology and neurology of learning
  • Incorporating experiential learning into programmes and workplace learning
  • The collaborative nature of leadership and implications for development 
  • Lessons business schools can learn from our complex and turbulent environment

Papers should include substantial recommendations for implementation in practice.

The deadline for submissions is 27th March 2015.

To prepare their manuscript, authors are asked to closely follow the `Instructions to Authors'' of the Leadership & Organization Development Journal (LODJ). Manuscripts will be refereed according to the standards of LODJ. Manuscripts should be submitted via LODJ's electronic submission system via this link
The Special Issue is linked to CRED3, the 3rd Ashridge Centre for Research in Executive Development (CRED) Conference. Submissions are encouraged without discrimination whether or not you have participated in the CRED conference.

“Scientific advances in developing leaders for today’s complex environment”
Ashridge Business School, Ashridge, Berkhamsted, HP4 1NS, UK
11th – 13th December 2014

The deadline for conference paper submission has now passed.  


Blumer, B.D., Baldwin, T.T., and Ryan, K.C. (2013). Communication apprehension: a barrier to students’ leadership, adaptability, and multicultural appreciation. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 12 (2), 158-172

Butler, M.J.R. (2008). Neuromarketing and the perception of knowledge. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 7, 415-419.

Elderman, G.M. (1993). Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind. Perseus Books: Oxford.

Grossman, R., Salas, E., Pavlas, D., and Rosen, M.A. (2013). Using instructional features to enhance demonstration-based training in management education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 12 (2),219-243.

Howard-Jones, P.A., Demetriou, S., Bogacz, R., Yoo, H.J., and Leonards, U. (2011). Towards a science of learning games. Mind, Brain and Education, 5 (1), 33-41.

Kassam, K.S., Koslov, K., & Mendes, W.B. (2009). Decisions under stress: Stress profiles influence anchoring and adjustment. Psychological Science, 3 (2), 1394-1399.

Lee, N., Senior, C., & Butler, M. (2012). Leadership research and cognitive neuroscience: The state of this union. The Leadership Quarterly, 23, 213-218.

McGuire, C., & Rhodes, G. (2009). Transforming your Leadership Culture. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Senior, C., Lee, N., & Butler, M. (2011). Organizational cognitive neuroscience. Organization Science, 22 (3), 804-815.

Sutherland, I. (2013). Arts-based methods in leadership development: Affording aesthetic workspaces, reflexivity and memory with momentum. Management Learning, 44(1), 25-43.

Waldeman, D.A., Balthazard, P.A., & Peterson. (2011). Leadership and neuroscience: Can we revolutionize the way that inspirational leaders are identified and developed? Academy of Management Perspectives, February, 60-74.

Yin, H.H.S.P., Mulcare, M.R., Hilario, E. Clouse, T. Holloway, M.I. Davis, A.C., Hansson, D.M., Lovinger, R.M. Costa. (2003). Dynamic reorganization of striatal circuits during the acquisition and consolidation of a skill. Nature Neurosci. 12 (3), 333-341.