The Neuroscience of Leadership

by Jan 27, 2019Blog, Leadership0 comments

The Neuroscience of Leadership

Elon Musk. Steve Jobs. Mark Zuckerburg. Three names that spell wealth, leadership and success. But what is about these leaders – and many others like them – that stands them apart from the crowd? Is it drive? Destiny? Intelligence? Perhaps it is a combination of all three, but perhaps it is something fundamentally different.

In attempts to understand – for want of a better expression – The X Factor of these leaders, scientists have begun to delve deeper into the inner workings of the brain and have started to explore the neuroscience of leadership. Could it be that these successful leader’s brains simply operate in a different way to the rest of us? Is there a way to train yourself to think as they think? To act as they act? All pertinent questions that this short article will look to answer…

Modern Science and Neuroleadership

In 2009, David Rock conceptualized Neuroleadership – which describes the application of neuroscience to leadership development; management training; change management education and consulting; and coaching – in his seminal publication Your Brain At Work.

Whilst still in it’s infancy, the field of neuroleadership has continued to progress since Rock’s book hit the shelves. In fact, today, a whole scientific journal dedicated to the subject exists. Through innovative research, neuroscience has begun to map neural pathways between human interaction and effective leadership, and assist in unlocking the power of neuroplasticity (abandoning the neuropathways you are currently stuck in) and unleashing your brain’s innate agility and resilience.

Employing Neuroleadership Techniques

Despite rapidly advancing scientific research, neuroleadership techniques are comparatively simple to adopt in practice.

The first aspect of neuroleadership to consider, is body language. This may sound simple, it is somewhat obvious to have open and encouraging body language when communicating with a team. However, the influence of body language on the message being communicated is vast. It is in fact so extensive, that studies by Alexander Pentland revealed that good leaders can be distinguished from body language and signals alone, without having to know exactly what is being said. Taking the time to focus on is being said with the body is therefore arguably more important than perfecting a speech on a word by word basis.

A further technique, is more complex in nature, and requires a recalibration of emotional regulation. Our brain has just one braking system, and as such it grounds us physically, mentally and emotionally. However, this system can be trained by subjecting it to emotional events. Perhaps one reason behind the success of many of the great leaders of today have come from less than ideal origins, take the adoption of Steve Jobs as just one example.

Just like with a physical brake, the braking centre of the brain reduces force when activated. So, in the case of emotions these emotions become less intense. Increasing the braking capacity of your brain means that you can decrease the intensity of your emotions and conserve the brain power for rational and deliberate thinking – or in other terms, concentrate and lead more effectively.

Going With Your Gut

Malcolm Gladwell, a renowned Canadian journalist and author, published Blink in January, 2005. Blink is a book that focuses on the power of the human subconscious and how we can harness that power in our everyday lives.

Gladwell postulates the ability of “thin slicing”, which refers to using our initial reactions to a person, behaviour or situation, and how listening to that reaction can achieve greater results than gathering information over longer time periods.

Take the example of John Gottman, a psychologist working on marital relationships. Gottman can predict (with unerring accuracy) the health of two individuals marriage and whether they will “go the distance” from observing a one hour conversation between the two.

Gladwell also pays homage to FACS (Facial Action Coding System), conceptualized by Swedish anatomist Carl-Herman Hjortsjö, and further developed by the American duo Paul Ekman and Joseph Hager. FACS relates to identifying micro-changes in facial expressions to gather information about how people are reacting to your ideas and proposals. Learning to recognise these changes can create distinct advantages in business scenarios.

The reading of people, communication and expressions are invaluable skills in the business world, and utilizing these split decisions is prominent in business leaders who later state they “had a hunch” or “went with their gut”. Split decisions can result in huge profits, just look at Michael Burry and his big short on the US housing market before its crash in 2008.

Change Will Come, Be Ready

The field of neuroleadership and neuroscience will continue to advance. In just a short space of time, the field has generated a unique journal of publication, post graduate education programmes and an annual summit hosted by The Neuroleadership Institute.

Adapting to change is no mean feat. In fact, our brains often perceive change as a threat, and as such, are unwilling to accept it.

However, gaining a head start in understanding this new and exciting field of research could be key to becoming one of the great leaders of tomorrow. Change will come, and as Henry Kissinger said “The job of a leader is to get his/her people from where they are to where they have not yet been”.

Mark Lukens, MBA

Mark Lukens, MBA

Founding Partner at Capatus
Mark Lukens is a founding partner at Capatus and located in the New York office. He leads the Capatus’ Global Talent and Advisory practice. He is also an expert in the firm’s research and nonprofit practice. Lukens has more than 20 years of c-level executive and consulting experience delivering strategies and transformational programs to firms ranging from start-up to Fortune 50. He has worked with clients in Europe, North America, South America, and Asia. Lukens worked extensively in various product and service categories including health care, life sciences, government, nonprofit, technology, and professional services. He also advises clients in other industries including commercial and industrial, retail, logistics and transportation, media and more. Lukens serves on several Nonprofit Boards and is a professor at the State University of New York where he teaches in the School of Business and Economics with a focus on marketing, international management, entrepreneurship, HR, and organizational behavior to name a few. Lukens has a technical background as a MCSE and earned an MBA from Eastern University.
Mark Lukens, MBA


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