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Brain Networks for Effective Leadership

Modern brain sciences are developing very fast. We are understanding better and better how 86 billion brain cells affect management and leadership whilst still marvelling at the complexity and apparently random beauty of it.

Scientific study is shifting from the activation of brain regions to learning how networks of brain regions activate in concurrent patterns. It is creating a new science called Connectomics. Instead of concentrating on which bit of the brain does what, the search is on for how it puts so much together so seamlessly. It is like going from doing detective work at a crime scene using video from a single surveillance camera to using footage from multiple cameras positioned in different locations. If the brain can put complex processes together seamlessly, why do organisations find it so difficult? After all, organisations are only collections of brains working together (or, too often, not so well together). Perhaps it is the leader’s special responsibility to network them together especially well and get full power out of them.

These new brain sciences have already produced new insights into the biology of our minds and deepened our understanding of concepts crucial to management, including:

• how to enable creative thinking

• how to structure rewards and engage people

• the role of the emotions in decision making

• the opportunities and pitfalls of multitasking

But, before we can explore these areas, we need to understand some fundamental operating principles:

Brain basics

a) The brain has 3 major parts as shown below:

©Hammersley & Bones 2012

30-31 October 2012

b) These three areas evolved in that order; neocortex, limbic, reptilian. As the neocortex is the newest part and only evident in higher primates, it is the least efficient. The limbic (emotional) brain is far faster at processing things. As the brain looks for the path of least resistance, if it can avoid using the cortical brain for thinking and instead use the limbic brain, it will do so, as it is much more metabolically efficient. That is why we do a huge amount of things without ever being aware we have done so, why we are so habitual, and that ‘thinking about change’ sits up in the cortex, which requires far more effort.

c) The whole brain system is wired for threat and reward, and there appears to be more neural capacity seeking out threat than reward, which is a useful evolutionary development that has kept us safe.

Social pain – like feeling neglected or left out - activates the same regions in the brain as physical pain.

When someone is put down, barked at, or on the end of an abrasive management style, threat responses are activated by the limbic system impairing the ability to think clearly. Change also represents a big threat to the brain. The best bet for the brain is always to trust its own experience rather than someone else’s assumptions. “Yes’ often doesn’t mean ‘I agree’. Very often it means ‘Yes, I have heard you, but I’ll go on doing things my way though I’m not going to tell you that’.

Intellectually, change might sound challenging or exciting but to most brains it spells danger.

The brain that got me here is the one most likely to get me there. As an error detection system, scanning for any unexpected change. and closely linked to the amygdala from where the brain’s fear circuitry is triggered within the limbic brain, the limbic brain draws precious energy away from the frontal areas of the cortex responsible for decision making and executive function, sometimes manifested as panic, irrational behaviour, stress or just plain cussedness.

Our brains are formed through relationship, from day one onwards. Indeed the baby arriving in the world has already had at least five months of being actively influenced by the brain of the mother. Relationships start very early. One modern way of thinking about the brain is to see it as the organ of relationship.

Brains tune to others’ brains. Thus a key task of the leader is to tune his or her own brain so that it has the capacity to tune the brains of immediate subordinates and thereby shape the culture of the whole organisation. Richard Branson knows this intuitively, and a piratical sense pervades Virgin’s operating style and focuses its energies.

Sir Terry Leahy did the same, in a much quieter way but with huge benefit, when he led Tesco.

It is not surprising that when a leader changes, and so the central cultural effector changes, organisations typically go through bumpy times of adjustment. And this is true at all levels of leadership throughout the whole organisation. An enormous amount of human energy – the stuff that is very expensive and that is the only source of profit – gets wasted through this mechanism not being understood organisationally. The new brain sciences let us know it much better.

The six qualities that leaders need to display, and through which they can adapt to a neuropsychology of leadership for the Strategic Command course of the Royal College of Defence Studies, are to be able to:

1. Connect - bear in mind the brain is a social organ, so develop authentic relationships with others internally and externally, not just interacting them when you need them. They will do far more for you if they feel you are interested in them as people, not just as counterparties.

2. Be courageous - encourage brave thinking and protect failed attempts. Lead by example, being prepared to admit when you don’t know something and solicit others’ perspectives on your efforts.

3. Be clever enough - a leader’s job is to create conditions for others to do their best thinking, free from the threats that hijack maximal cognitive output. Your job is to conduct the orchestra, not to play every instrument for your musicians.

4. Walk your own talk - we are slick enough to hold in tension a need to feel good about ourselves with benefit from a little dishonesty and explain away little indiscretions quite fluently. Ask yourself: what story am I telling myself that allows me to cheat a little and still feel good about myself and address it. Head on.

5. Inspire others to action - people don’t want to be managed, they want to be unleashed. So put away the carrot and stick and get them to shift of their own volition.

Value social as much as financial reward, instil a sense of fairness and a create a truly shared purpose. If you get them right, your people will start to move.

6. Be worth following - your people are transacting with your firm, their effort and commitment for money, meaning and purpose at work. If you get all the above right and lead, they will choose to take the trade. If you simply manage, they won’t.

Trust runs through them all. In the first five the person trusts themselves. In the sixth, the person is trusted. That is what creates real networks that have the capacity to produce beyond expectation.

This article is reproduced by kind permission of James Parsons, who started his career on the trading floor of large financial institutions in the City of London. He is now a leadership coach and a Partner with Strengths Unleashed.


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