When evaluating what makes a great business leader, Tom Peters may not have envisioned this: Psychologists from the University of Toronto, Harvard University, the University of Hawaii and McGill University have come up with computerized measures of “executive intelligence” that can be used to predict who will excel in a managerial role or in a competitive academic environment.

The research, published in the August 2007 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, demonstrates that individuals who perform exceptionally well at tasks that access the prefrontal cortex—described as the “executive” area of the brain—are likely to receive high ratings of managerial competence.

How do researchers know this? Over a period of six years, approximately 800 subjects—400 from business and 400 from universities—were administered “executive function” tests—game-like computer tests of learning, memory and decision making, Dr. Jordan Peterson, psychology professor at the University of Toronto and author of the research report, told INN. “MRI, CT scan and results of the performance of psychosurgery patients have been used to determine whether the tests activate the prefrontal cortex (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, to be precise), which is the brain area associated with the highest level of abstract thinking,” he said.

According to Peterson, consistent use of such tests has two benefits: one associated with increased performance and productivity, and the other with decreased risk of error.

And, he says, although none of the research participants came from the insurance industry, the tests are still valid, because all complex managerial jobs draw on the same set of skills (roughly those associated with prefrontal function and intelligence, conscientiousness and emotional stability).

The research lends itself to the old adage “leaders are born, not made.” Or does it?

Once executive intelligence is measured, how do we assess its impact or usefulness? Out of the labs and into the boardroom, this could play out in several ways.

For example, how much credence would be given to a C-level job candidate’s test results? Would the candidate with the highest score demand an outrageous executive bonus plan that includes excessive compensation and stock options? Would this candidate be offered a severance package? After all, the test results indicate that this candidate will function with a decreased risk of error, making him/her destined for greatness, not failure.

Perhaps the board should focus less on the candidate’s prefrontal cortex and associated abstract thinking abilities and more on whether the candidate has a proven track record, the ability to strategize, evaluate, negotiate and motivate people to take appropriate action and achieve desired business results.

And maybe Peterson should incorporate into his research the measure of an executive’s core values and inherent sense of ethics. In light of the AIG/Gen Re insurance accounting scandal, insurance companies may benefit from testing early and testing often.

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