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Optimizing Leadership Training and Development by Leveraging Learning Science: A Brief Primer

Key Stakeholders: Chief Learning Officers, Chief Human Resource Officers, Learning and Development Directors and Managers, Corporate Trainers, Content and Learning Product Managers, Chief Executive Officer, C-suite, Managers

Top Takeaways:

  • If you want high-quality leadership at all levels of your organization then you need to provide employees with effective broad-based leadership training and development solutions.
  • Optimized leadership training and development are multi-faceted and involve multiple distinct learning systems in the brain that each have different processing characteristics. Thus, a tool that is effective for one aspect of leadership training, may be sub-optimal for another aspect. One-size-does-NOT-fit-all.
  • Many vendors offer a broad suite of tools, with little guidance on what to use when.
  • Learning science serves as a guide for optimally mapping tools onto training problems.
  • Tools optimized for leadership training and development must be grounded in learning science – the marriage of psychology and brain science. In this report, I briefly outline the learning science behind leadership profile, people skills and situational awareness training and development.

Do you want leaders with a deep understanding of the “Leadership Profile” that I define with the following traits?

  • Knowing the definitions and implications of unconscious bias, harassment and diversity
  • Having a strong grasp of their organization’s vision and structure
  • Leading with strong communication and people skills that show empathy and respect for others in every interaction, including those that are challenging (e.g., performance evaluations or conflict resolution)
  • Leading with situational awareness an ability to “read” any situation, “think on one’s feet” and adjust, as well as instill confidence in others
  • Leading individuals as well as their team through adversity, all in a calm and collected manner

If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then your organization wants leadership training and development tools that are grounded in learning science – the marriage of psychology and brain science. You want to find the vendors who have leveraged the $100’s of millions of dollars in psychological and brain science research (over $10 million of which was awarded to the author) by building a scientifically-grounded, optimized platform for leadership training and development. But how can you identify these vendors?

In this era of digital transformation, where organizations rely increasingly on cross-functional and deeply collaborative teams, leadership is becoming more distributed and employees are taking on leadership roles much earlier in their careers. Combine this with some of the recent corporate crises (#metoo, unconscious bias, discrimination) and effective leadership training becomes even more important. The work of thought leaders such as Jim Collins who identify world-class leaders who are humble, clear, and fair show the business value of leaders who understand people.

In this report, I briefly review the psychology and brain science of learning, then map this learning science onto three critical aspects of optimized leadership training and development:

  • Hard Skills of Leadership – The hard skills of leadership training and development provide the leader with all of the knowledge and facts associated with strong leadership. This includes learning the rules, regulations, and compliance requirements, but also includes learning the “hard” skills” of people skills such as the ability to identify unconscious biases, sexual harassment, and discriminatory behavior. Knowledge of verbal and non-verbal communication skills and team dynamics are also critical.
  • “People” Skills Training – The goal is to provide the leader with the people skills necessary to communicate effectively with verbal and non-verbal cues. This includes eliminating any action from the leader’s behavioral repertoire that expresses bias, harassment or discrimination. These people skills must be trained effectively, and across a broad range of typical and atypical situations (e.g., during conflict resolution, performance evaluation, or under time or social pressure).
  • “Situational Awareness” – The best leader can “read” any individual, group or situation, can “think on their feet” and can adjust their strategy and behavior effectively. This involves a rich suite of cognitive, behavioral, but most importantly emotional skills. One must develop the ability to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” to understand and “read” another’s state of mind, as well as to understand how one’s own behavior is interpreted by others. This requires training across a broad range of situations. High situational awareness is key to knowing “what to do when”.

Distinct Learning Systems in the Brain (the “What”, the “How”, the “Feel”)

As I have elaborated in detail in other research reports, there are distinct learning systems in the brain. Each system is “optimally” tuned to specific types of learning, and critically, the training tools that most effectively recruit each learning system are different.

The figure below provides an overview of the three main learning systems in the brain, along with the relevant psychological processes, and a schematic of the relevant brain regions.


Cognitive Skills Learning (The “What”): The cognitive skills learning system has evolved to store information and learn facts. This system mediates hard skills learning and I refer to this as the “what” system. Cognitive skill learning relies heavily on working memory and attention and is mediated by the prefrontal cortex in the brain. Processing in this system is optimized when information comes in brief, coherent chunks (often referred to as microlearning), is delivered spaced over time, and is tested periodically to ensure storage of the information in long-term memory that resides in the hippocampus and medial temporal lobe structures. Mental repetitions are key to long-term memory storage. I refer to these procedures as those that “Train for Retention”.

Behavioral Skills Learning (The “How”): The behavioral skills learning system has evolved to learn behaviors. This system mediates people (aka soft) skills learning, and I refer to this as the “how” system. Behavioral skill learning does not rely on working memory and attention, in fact, I have shown that “overthinking it” hinders behavioral skills learning. Behaviors are learned through gradual, incremental, dopamine-mediated reward/punishment learning in the basal ganglia of the brain. Processing in this system is optimized when behavior is interactive and is followed in real-time (literally within milliseconds) by corrective feedback. If a behavior is elicited that is rewarded, dopamine will be released into the basal ganglia, the neural connections that drove that behavior will be strengthened, and the likelihood that behavior will be elicited again will increase. If a behavior is elicited that is punished, dopamine will not be released, the neural connections that drive that behavior will be weakened, and the likelihood that behavior will be elicited again will decrease. Physical repetitions are key to long-term behavior change.

Emotional Learning (The “Feel”): The emotional learning system has evolved to facilitate the development of empathy and understanding of our and others’ behaviors, and to “read” nuance in each situation. This system is critical to situational awareness, affects processing in both the cognitive and behavioral skills learning systems in the brain, and is referred to as the “feel” system. Emotional learning affects how one processes and links hard skills information and facts to specific situations, and what people skills are engaged in specific situations. Emotional learning can be instilled by “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” and learning to “read” individual and group personality. Emotional learning recruits the amygdala and other limbic structures.

Optimized Leadership Training and Development

Hard Skills of Leadership: The goal of executive training is to provide the leader-in-training with as much leadership-relevant information as possible. This includes information about the rules and regulations that govern the organization to ensure compliance. It also includes fact-based training on important psychological factors such as the definition of unconscious bias, harassment and discrimination. Information on how to identify and avoid inappropriate behaviors is also important. The amount of information is substantial, and the learning science is clear on how to impart this information effectively. Because this type of learning is mediated by the cognitive skills learning system in the brain (the “what”), which has substantive working memory and attentional constraints, brief bursts of compelling content should be utilized. Training should be spaced over time, and retention testing should be incorporated. Training content should be available 24/7 on any device. A number of vendors provide excellent tools for training the leadership profile and hard skills in general.

“People” Skills: The best leader is one who leads by example, says and does the right things in an ever-changing setting, and meets all of these requirements simultaneously. At its core, people skills are about behavior. They are about what we “do”, “how” we do it, and our “intent”. People skills are challenging, nuanced and difficult to master. In leadership, their importance is amplified because the goal of a leader is to maximize productivity and the ROI obtained from employees while simultaneously keeping employees positively engaged, satisfied with their workplace environment, and disinterested in leaving for another organization. Behavior change involves gradual, incremental, dopamine-mediated reward/punishment learning in the basal ganglia of the brain (the “how”) and extensive physical repetitions. People skills training requires in person or virtual role play with real-time interaction and corrective feedback. Ideally, and especially for leadership training and development, the role play should occur under a broad range of environmental settings with different ethnic and gender mixes, typical and atypical settings, and under extreme conditions. Unfortunately, many of the tools that optimize hard skills learning (e.g., the Leadership profile) are suboptimal for people skills training. These include spaced training, microlearning and knowledge testing.

For example, short, focused training on a single situation (microlearning) is ineffective for people skills training because behavioral skills are best learned with longer training sessions and broad variability in scenarios. From a learning science perspective, this is the area most in need of additional corporate offerings. No currently available corporate training platforms include a broad-based, real-time interactive offering that directly engages the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. That said, I fully expect immersive technologies, such as virtual reality, combined with high-end computer graphics and AI to drive the interactions will solve this problem in the near future.

“Situational Awareness”: The best leader is the one who adapts quickly and effectively to any situation—commonly referred to as situational awareness. This involves a deep cognitive (the “what”), behavioral (the “how”) and emotional (the “feel”) understanding. One who is strong in the trait of situational awareness can accurately read any situation, knows what to do in each situation, and has the behavioral repertoire to engage each situation with the appropriate set of behaviors. This involves a keen understanding of individual and group motivation and personality dynamics, empathy, and an ability to “walk a mile in one’s own or another’s shoes” to see all views of a situation. The optimal method for training situational awareness is to combine the cognitive skills associated with Leadership Profile training with the behavioral skills associated with broad-based people skills training through the lens of emotion, motivation and personality. As suggested above this may ultimately be solved by virtual reality technology and high-end AI to drive interactions. Some vendors address specific critical aspects of situational awareness directly (e.g., measuring and leveraging personality) whereas others rely on efforts such as the use of diverse scenario-based training and testing.

Conclusion and Call to Action

As this very brief primer suggests, leadership training and development optimized for brain functioning is critical to an organization’s success. Employees are taking leadership roles earlier in their careers than ever before, and the need for effective corporate leadership is on the rise. When leaders are effective, profits rise, employees are engaged and satisfied, and turnover is low. When leaders are ineffective, profits diminish, the workplace sours, employees leave and organizations can lose billions of dollars overnight (e.g., Facebook, Uber, etc). The best leadership training and development solutions are aligned with the learning science – the marriage of psychology and brain science – and optimally engage the “what”, “how”, and “feel” systems in the brain. Organizations can obtain a competitive advantage by leveraging broad-based leadership training and development solutions that empower employees with the leadership knowledge that they need, the people skills necessary to lead by example, and the awareness to read any situation and adjust effectively when needed. Learning and Training professions should work with the C-suite and management at all levels to evaluate specific leadership needs and gaps, then develop solutions and policies that address these challenges. This approach takes full advantage of learning science to build better leaders.

If you would like to speak with the author of this piece, W. Todd Maddox, Ph.D. to learn more about his 25+ years research in brain science supported by over $10 million in external funding and cited over 10,000 times by his peers, please contact us at to set up a time to chat with Todd.

1 thought on “Optimizing Leadership Training and Development by Leveraging Learning Science: A Brief Primer

  1. […] vendors from small, innovative startups to much larger companies who are working to tackle the leadership development problem head-on. Although more work is needed, some of these offerings are truly […]

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