The Science of Leadership is in All of Our Heads
by Iain Price, PhD
Increased performance, adaptability to challenges and mental resilience today needs more than leadership theory – it requires applied brain science. To successfully apply leadership theory means incorporating an understanding of the biology of the human brain – because these brains are people. Otherwise you will be continually wondering why something that should work in theory doesn’t work in practise. Or why well-intentioned feedback, which should improve team performance, appears to fall on deaf ears.
In a workspace that, via the pandemic, has rapidly been accelerated into virtual contexts, leaders have a rare and strategic opportunity to consider how to up their game here in ways that will not only improve wellbeing and performance but also allow a ‘re-humanising’ the workplace. We don’t have to go back to ways of working that weren’t working all that well to begin with. So how can we best do this? The good news is that knowing what we are really dealing with means we can start to realise the possibilities that are quite literally in your heads and in the heads of those around you.
The wholistic study of the brain and whole nervous system is called neuroscience. In business and leadership the application of neuroscience, over just psychology and philosophy (theory of mind), has been in ascendance over the last 30 years. Advances in neuroscience, and it’s application are now, mean that we can be even better placed to meet the needs of a world that values thinking over computation. Everything we do, say and feel is dictated in some way by our brains. That might seem obvious, but it does mean that when it comes to you developing into the best leader you can be, you have both your best friend and worst enemy sitting right between your ears – and it has the driving seat!
Part of your brain’s function is to operate under the pretence that, in all that it is doing, it is giving you the greatest service. When we view a situation, we think we are seeing the ‘truth of the matter’ but maybe we’re not. It is part of our brain’s function to actively discourage thinking too hard about whether what we do, think, or feel has any basis in actual evidence – or is actually in our best interests. Left unchecked this can lead to us making incorrect assumptions, holding onto stagnant thoughts that get us nowhere and excusing stale behaviours that can even do us harm.
What’s Really Going On?
The smart play here is to recognise what’s really going on and getting your ‘best friend’ brain onside. Realising that your brain is making your thinking life easier by deliberately filtering out new information that doesn’t fit with your version of ‘the truth’ is a first step. Next is to appreciate that when things are uncomfortable to address, your brain will initially resist and provide you with some convenient excuses to “do it tomorrow”. When we know this, we can then work with and nurture the best friend within.
You may be familiar with the term ‘knowledge economy’. Simply put, in the 21st century, you, and those that you lead, are really being paid for your ability to think and apply that thinking. Your knowledge and its application are what drives economic growth.
Leaps in computation, connectivity and the introduction of AI means that what makes the real difference in the workplace today are the things that processors can’t do – to think and feel in a holistic and intuitive way – a more human way. As leaders we need to be smarter at releasing our thinking and the thinking of others.
We also need to accept that this is more difficult to do in practise than in principle because our brain will perpetually try to appear as our ‘best friend’ when actually it is usually processing our thoughts and feelings along the lines of least resistance. Leadership is difficult not because the principles are difficult to understand, but because most of us are not truly applying those principles.
It’s All in Your Head
The human brain weighs about 1.5 kgs and is made up of about 86 billion neurones. That’s such a large number that if you were to count them at 1 a second it would take you over 2700 years to count them. This is before we consider the hundreds and thousands of connections each neurone can make with those around it. The bottom line is the human brain has the ability to create an astronomic number of connections. Your brain is the product of over 35,000 years of evolution and yours has been developing and changing since before you were born.
A fundamental in brain development is neuroplasticity, how your brain adapts and changes when it is forced to face a new challenge. This process continues through the whole of our lives, so the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is not correct! But research has suggested that by the time we are 30, more than 90% of what we feel think or value is recycled. Neuroplasticity means that doesn’t have to be the case. But unless we understand why our brain can resist challenge to its norms and values, we can easily become that ‘old dog’ – whilst still telling ourselves we are open-minded, flexible, and progressive.
Despite being only 2% of your body weight, your brain requires about 20% or more of your daily energy requirements. Adapting your thinking in response to a challenge requires a physical change between your brain connections – and that change process is incredibly energy intensive. Putting it another way, your brain will only spend its valuable energy allocation for the day if it can see a clear benefit to doing so.
We also know that each brain is unique. Inconveniently for leaders this means that each of your team members brains will need to come to a ‘decision’ by living through, believing in the challenge, and valuing it for itself.
To grow, challenge has to be like Goldilocks – choosing the porridge that is neither too hot, nor too cold but rather just right. Research on performance in all kinds of work contexts corroborates this. Too much time in an easy role and we stagnate and don’t feel engaged, too little time in a stretch role and the learning doesn’t stick and we don’t feel competent.
Getting Out of Your Own Head and Out of Your Own Way
The development of coaching to lead people and increase performance at work has developed since the 1980s, alongside the growth in understanding the biology of the brain. The developments in neuroscience help us to understand how and why coaching works – and how a leadership theory can go beyond being understood and become integrated into the thinking of real people with unique brains in multiple workplace settings.
Coaching is different to teaching or mentoring. The latter can be limited in their usefulness in a modern context because they rely on established thinking and the fundamental belief that what is being passed on as knowledge is relevant for the current and future situations. Teaching and mentoring can also miss that what works for one person extremely well, may not work for another person at all.
If there is one thing that the pandemic has shown us it is that the World will not stay still. It has been recognised for some time that an agility and rapid adaption to VUCA world – a world with high volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – will be required for a business to survive. To paraphrase Einstein ‘the thinking that has got us here, is not getting us there’.
Knowledge of what has been and passing that on, is not going to be enough if we want to truly meet and surpass the challenges of the modern world in our teams. Rather than acquire, retain, and pass on knowledge, in a VUCA world, leaders will need to question, interpret and apply creative thinking to enable businesses to adapt quickly.
A brain left to its own devices will tend to not want to change, even when it logically knows that would advantageous, it also tends to view a challenge ‘through’ certain social biases that it picks up from its environment. These colour a brain’s perception of the world – a bit like looking at the world through a certain type of glasses or lenses. Steven Covey called these ‘glasses’ paradigms and used it to explain that often “the problem is not the problem; the problem is the way [your brain] sees the problem”.
A brain left to its own devices may not be capable of thinking differently. To adapt and more than just survive some help is required to take off the glasses and see the problem differently. This is one of the things that leaders do when they are coaching.
The neuroscience helps us also to understand that brains don’t respond well to being micromanaged or told what to do. Because every brain is unique, a bespoke ‘instruction manual’ must be created in the brain to manage a new task. You can’t transfer the manual from one brain to the other and a new ‘manual’, even for a simple task, requires brain energy to be expended which the brain would rather hold onto. This means that if something is uncomfortable or a person is without a clear sense of the deeper purpose, their brain is likely to disregard what they were told to do, in favour of finding something they want to do more and is in their short-term interests. You will have noted the very creative excuses that people bring to the table to excuse not having followed a seemingly simple instruction!
Creative and innovative companies have come to know this. Leaders and teams are encouraged to regularly gain perspectives and feedback from others, to help them see what their brain cannot see by itself.
This is not necessarily what the brain wants to do but it is what it needs to do. It is known that when a brain stops being stretched by learning in later life, it starts to die and the body follows. However, when a brain is encouraged to recognise that growth can be worked through and particularly where the brain-energy expenditure brings a reward, it releases biochemical energy so that challenge becomes stimulating and enjoyable.
Put simply, the need to constantly adapt and improve is not only a condition for growth for business but for the individual. Companies that get this right see the mutual benefits, the symbiosis and synergy, that team member wellbeing brings to group dynamics and performance. It can mean the difference to an organisation between surviving and thriving.
Brains Are Made for Connecting & Creating Together
Every brain is not only built for making internal connections but to make connections with other brains – in other words, our brains make us social creatures. Sadly, the mentality of much teaching, even learning and development training, is to talk at those who are sat still, being quiet and only listening to the teacher / leader. While this has its place, it undoubtedly means much thinking potential is lost if this is the main leadership style chosen. It relies on the leader being the expert in everything in every circumstance. It is unlikely in a VUCA world that any leader has this omnipotence. Thus, those modern leaders, who develop the thinking of others rather than simply provide information, are likely to be harnessing more brain power to tackle complex problems.
This teaching model also puts a huge pressure on the leader not to fail, and to seem confident in any situation, even when this is probably impossible. Neuroscience has been able to illustrate why fear of failure represses innovation and limits the development of a growth mindset which research has shown most successful individuals and teams have. Research also suggests that ‘Expert’ leaders are viewed as less real, and not as approachable to their colleagues. It can also lead to a sense of being inauthentic, which recent research also suggests is performance limiting.
Authenticity, which is essential for trust, is something that brains are also wired to spot – or rather when authenticity is missing, the brain’s own threat radar (the amygdala and associated limbic circuitry) calls it out. When this happens and our trust is lost, our stress levels are raised. In turn this literally closes down blood flow and energy to the more creative logical thinking regions of a colleague’s brain. This is the opposite of what is required from leaders in a VUCA environment – to think beyond bias, create new ideas and find ways to apply the new knowledge to enhance business performance.
A command-and-control style leader who inadvertently triggers the threat reaction may also be short on feedback that challenges them to change (if you have ever given strong feedback to someone who is more senior than you and whose presence makes your heartbeat faster, you will know why this is rare!)
We all have biases and paradigms, but with this style, they can go un-challenged and entrenched blind-spots can occur, particularly when there is no financial evidence to the contrary and the leader appears to be delivering. Whilst results may be good, however, it follows logically that the performance will be even better when colleagues can think more clearly, and the threat/stress response is reduced.
Team leaders who learn to listen and encourage regular two-way feedback that accepts biases and paradigms are human and expects them to be explored in a high trust environment, encourage curiosity and enable more diverse perspectives to be applied to shared problems.
What’s more, applied neuroscience theory has shown that brains respond and develop best when they are encouraged to think for themselves. So, where a leader asks questions of their reports before giving advice or a command direction, they will be literally strengthening neurological connections in the brains of their teams.
The right amount of challenge – that moves colleagues into the ideal stretch / Goldilocks zone means that leaders don’t “steal” the opportunity for them to learn by telling them what to do. When we appreciate that coaching – in essence, asking questions to stimulate thinking – creates and strengthens pathways in the brains of others we can more easily appreciate that even if it takes a little longer, the long-term effect on the team’s neurological ability means it is well worth it.
Following the instructions of someone else doesn’t have that same efficacy. It might feel faster and more efficient to tell people what to do, but others create their own neural pathways for themselves, their actions are much more likely to be encoded and become more available for use in different contexts. This means the new thinking can be more transferable to other challenges in the future without the leader having to direct it. This is when 1+1= far more than 2.
Leaders who encourage and explore thinking in their teams also benefit from the diversity of thought and are far less likely to be blindsided by product or team relational issues. Knowing that you are going to be asked questions around challenges, rather than being given answers to them encourages reports to develop and mature into team roles in their own ways – to encourage ownership.
Ownership and empowerment lead to autonomy, resilience and higher levels of engagement. Many studies have shown that engaged employees have higher levels of productivity and quality. Neuro-leadership – or leading with the brain in mind simply makes commercial sense.
A Key Tool to Brain Smart Leadership (Neuroleadership) is Coaching
Leaders are often asked to raise themselves out of the day-to-day details to see the bigger picture and to develop the ability to hold and contextualise a vision. Learning to coach encourages these same mental muscles. Coaching trains us to challenge and reframe others’ issues to achieve a goal. So, learning to coach as an approach, rather than relying on micromanagement to get things done, strengthens the strategic capabilities of a leader and enables them identify and distance themselves more quickly when they are getting bogged down.
Good leaders may have some of the technical skills of their teams, but by remaining curious in the process longer, technical skills become less important as leaders get into the habit of not ‘solutioning’ and instead encourage connections in a colleague’s brain which can then combine with the brains of other people in the team to stretch creativity and innovation.
Asking ‘good’ questions, reflecting back observations, holding objectives, offer thinking models and philosophies (including how brains work) and encouraging colleagues to take responsibility for their own actions, challenges the brain and assumptions of the thinker and the coach. Modelling coaching as a leadership tool is also the tool that will keep on giving – as the proverbial wisdom states: ‘give someone a fish, and you feed them for a day; show them how to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime’.
Great leaders know they don’t have to be the expert in the technical detail – rather they help others to get the most out of their thinking and skills to apply that thinking. Answers to questions can remain hidden until they are exposed by the process of staying with the question longer. Famously Einstein said that given a problem to solve in one hour, he’d spend the first 55 minutes thinking about the problem (i.e. asking questions) and then only 5 minutes thinking about solutions.
A premise of coaching is that the coach believes in the sufficiency and capacity of the thinker to solve the whole problem – even when the thinker does not believe that of themselves. This inherent belief that someone knows more than they think they know and using questions rather than advice and well managed silence for thinking, brings new ideas and fresh thinking out faster than any other skill we can find or employ because it works with how the brains operates and grows.
In his book Quiet Leadership, applied neuroscientist David Rock agrees that questions are the way to lead without needing to shout or dominate others (the archetypal alpha). Leaders who can encourage others to question with them can ‘inhabit’ more of who they are. ‘Charismatic leadership’ becomes less about the leader being the person who talks the most, and instead becomes about the leader who asks the best questions and who people trust enough to answer truthfully.
Brain Smart Leadership is Neuroleadership
Being brain smart in your leadership essentially means using your brain to unlock other brains in service of a common purpose. This means you need to have leadership in mind – literally! This means 1+1= A LOT, LOT more than 2! It becomes “I to the power of we” that becomes a movement to which possibility opens up and becomes unstoppable.
So What Next?
Want to know more about how neuroleadership can transform you and your teams? Then connect now to arrange your first steps of discovery.
Want to know the difference between coaching, mentoring, therapy and counselling? Then follow this link.
 Warren Bennis & Burt Nanus (1987) – VUCA
 Professor Carol Dweck – Growth Mindset
 Frances Frei – Uber’s first SVP of leadership and strategy
 Michael Bungay Stanier – the Advice Monster
 David Rock – Quiet Leadership
 David Rock & Jefferey Schwartz – The Neuroscience of Leadership
 Andrew Jenkins – The Authority Guide to Developing High-performance Teams
- Quiet Leadership by David Rock
- 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
- Your Brain at Work by David Rock
- It’s Not Bloody Rocket Science by Dulcie Swanston
- Livewired by David Eagleman
- Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
- The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Satnier
- The Advice Trap by Michael Bungay Satnier
- More Time to Think by Nancy Kline
- The Fearless Organisation – Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace by Amy C. Edmondson
- Flex: The Art and Science of Leadership in a Changing World by Jeffrey Hull, PhD
- Enabling Genius by Myles Downey