Brain-based Approaches to Leadership: a Neuroscientific Perspective
The Quarterly 2014
This article was written by Dr Susan Keam, derived from material presented by Dr Paul Mohapel on the 2nd of June 2013 for the WFMM Annual Conference. A recording of the conference can be found on the WFMM website here
Why a neuroscientific perspective?
The brain has a lot to teach us about leadership. Understanding how our brain is put together gives us insights into why we react, how we think and enables us to have self-awareness and effectively manage ourselves. If we can’t lead ourselves, we are unlikely to be able to lead others effectively. Leadership is essentially a social activity, based on interactions, so understanding how social part of our brain works also helps us to be more effective as leaders. The brain is able to “rewire” itself in response to interactions with others, so our leadership style and behaviour can have a permanent impact on ourselves and others.
Understanding brain styles…
From a neuroscientific perspective we have three “brain styles” controlling us - the body (controls heart rate, blood supply and flight or fight response); the emotions (generates feelings, pleasure; reward or punishment) and thinking (memory, language, cognition; inhibition, foresight, planning). All three parts of the brain are interconnected, and there is a constant tension between the limbic (emotional) brain and neocortical (thinking) brain.
Engaging with each other physically changes our brains, in either a healthy or damaging way. As leadership is inherently social, and our brains contain the most advanced social circuitry, changes that happen in each “brain” have an impact on how we interact with others, and our leadership.
…and brain roles
Within the limbic brain, the amygdala is the emotional centre. It is our irrational mind, and is programmed early in life. It generates feelings of fear and anger and “defend” and “display” behaviours. The amygdala is triggered by stress and negative emotions generated by other people. Prolonged exposure to stress may lead to physical changes in the brain and the development of anxiety disorder. In contrast, positive emotions generally enhance our ability to think and excel in performance.
The prefrontal cortex, which is the central information hub (“the conductor of the orchestra”), pays attention to detail, plans, organises and makes decisions, allows us to make choices and recognises, experiences and expresses emotions. It is reprogrammable (based on our experiences),and has the capacity to reflect, visualise, discipline, judge and connect with others. These five factors have a big impact on our ability to be effective leaders. We need to be aware that stress has a negative impact on the quality of thinking, and that multi-tasking can overwhelm the brain, and over time this leads to inefficiency and supressed activity.
Good decisions require the thinking (cingulate [ethical consequences] and medial prefrontal [social implications] cortex) and emotional (amygdala [fear and emotion]) “brains” to work together.
The Neuroleadership Continuum
The three brain styles (body, emotional and thinking) can be reflected in the neuroleadership continuum and are associated with different personality types, ranging from sociopath (dehumanizing, reactive, low empathy) to mindful (sustained attention, in the moment, non-reactive, non-judgemental, open emotionality) and leadership styles (domination [commanding and pacesetting], drive [incentives, rewards/punishments] and transforming [visionary, coaching]).
From time to time leaders need to do a reality check to ensure they are not slipping into leadership sociopathy (i.e. dehumanising others, losing empathy towards them, excessive rationalising of behaviour towards others, and becoming reactive to situations/behaviours).
The key to effective, higher order brain leadership is developing and maintaining a connection between thinking and emotions, but focusing more on using the thinking (prefrontal cortex) than on the emotional (amygdala) part of the brain. Leadership starts with each of us, and the better our understanding we have of how we work, the better leader we can become.
Professor Paul Mohapel
The Royal Australasian College of Medical Administrators
Professor Paul Mohapel, , p671