Neuroscience Enlightens Leadership

As research into the mind develops, we will see neuroscience being applied to more and more areas of human behavior. Most recently, international business consultant David Rock applied it to the art of leadership and coined the term neuroleadership. Some have confused the term with a sort of science-fiction brain research that attempts to recreate the perfect leader’s mind. However, neuroleadership uses neuroscience to inform the art of leadership.  

Combining an art with a science has its limitations. There is the idea that when applying a science to the study of any area, including leadership, one can make it as mechanical as possible. This is rarely the case. There are no shortcuts to leadership, but neuroscience could certainly enlighten our understanding and add substantially to our knowledge of what are the best practices in leading people. Vision contributor Michael McKinney talked to David Rock to try to gain a little insight into this new field of study. 


MM To begin, what is neuroleadership? 

DR Neuroleadership is the study of leadership through the lens of neuroscience. Neuroleadership explores central elements of leadership such as self-awareness, awareness of others, insight, decision making and influencing, and applies what we are learning about the brain in these instances, thus building a neurological theory base for the “soft skills.” The field is not attempting to measure leaders' brain waves to find the “secret” of great leaders. 

MM What brought you to connect the two fields of study—neuroscience and leadership? 

DR I was personally trying to find the best science to explain the art of influencing people. “Getting people to do what you want” is still the hardest question for many people in business. I spent several years on this question, reading, writing and teaching in this area. At one point, it became very clear that neuroscience provided the most coherent and complete explanation for what goes on when we try to drive change. I ended up writing a book on this (Quiet Leadership), then a paper (“The Neuroscience of Leadership”), both of which became popular. The NeuroLeadership Summit in Italy in May this year was the first test to see if there was really a “field” emerging here or just a few of us with this crazy idea. Based on the global response to the summit, it's clear that many people are hungry to bring more science into leadership development, specifically a “hard” science like neuroscience. 

MM What can we expect from neuroleadership? 

DR Bear in mind it's early days, so expect it to take a few years for major findings to emerge. However, you can expect to see business schools globally building neuroscience into leadership programs; books written on various aspects of the field; science that explains how to be better at influencing, leading, training, learning. To start with, we need to do a lot of work at the level of one-to-one leadership, and as this theory base grows it will become more about the systemic application of the research. We will see research on every aspect of leadership, including change, engagement, incentive, feedback, presence, trust, teams, etc. 

MM Self-awareness is critical to leadership. The lack of it explains why we go off on tangents and end up with consequences we never intended. What is self-awareness from a neuroleadership perspective? 

DR That's one of the main focuses of the field, understanding self-awareness in a new way. There is some excellent neuroscience being done on “active” versus “passive” brain processes. Active processes are ones which we are aware of, passive occur beneath conscious awareness. We need both, as passive processes are far more efficient, active processes work in serial and are very tiring. The neuroscience is showing that the concept of observing your own thoughts is central to our ability to choose between active and passive. Coined “the impartial spectator” by Adam Smith, without this ability, we are always to some degree on automatic. There is a specific part of the brain that lights up when we choose to step outside the flow of experience and observe behaviors, and make a choice. So self-awareness is not a soft concept, it has very real correlates in the brain, and it has an impact on how data is experienced and interacted with. There's a lot more to say about this of course. 

MM If I have been hardwired a certain way, can I change it? 

DR Yes, we do all the time. The key is the brain only really goes forward; you can't go backward. You can't get rid of wiring you don't like. You can only create new wiring. That's because the process involved in change in any way requires attention—requires focusing your attention—and attention changes the brain. Attention creates or embeds circuits focused on. So we can change, but we need to learn to put our attention on new circuits not the old ones. That's often hard as old circuits are easier to bring attention to—there are lots of them—than newer more subtle circuits. It's like trying to find a car, versus a needle, in a haystack. 

MM Some don't come to self-awareness naturally. Is there a physical reason for it or is that strictly a function of environment and experience? 

DR Some people haven't given it much attention, so their circuits aren't well developed. Others might be born with weaker circuits between emotions and words, which is a medical condition. There is a part of the brain that becomes active when we focus our mind on inhibiting mental signals; it's under the right temple in the brain. 

MM Can it be developed or improved? 

DR We can improve self-awareness the same way we can improve our ability to speak a language, play tennis or learn PowerPoint. We need to pay attention, and activate the relevant circuits regularly. The good news is small regular efforts can do a lot: it’s the same way we quickly learn to do something even more complex, like learning to drive. 

MM From time to time, there is that moment when we "get it." There’s a breakthrough or a flash of insight. It’s a moment when we experience a leap in learning. What can neuroleadership tell us about what is happening? 

DR There are some great studies now on insight. We know that insight occurs when the brain goes quiet for a moment. We know that insight is a very important moment in the brain; it packs an energetic punch, and represents possible long term changes in circuitry. Often we get an insight moment at surprising times, when we're doing other things. That's because the part of the brain we use actively, can drown out the signals from the rest of the brain. We know that anxiety decreases the likelihood of insight, and happiness and positive affect generally increases the chance of insight. 

MM How would this affect how we work with or teach others? 

DR In so many ways! For example when we start to value insight as the moment at the heart of change, we start to create ways of facilitating it. The great thing about the energy of insight, which is partly adrenaline, is that it drives people to take action. Insight engages people, it makes people get up out of their chairs literally, and want to drive change. This is one important lesson from the science: insight is not helpful to long-term change, it's central to long-term change. But each person needs to have his or her own insight, not just to listen to the leader's insight. 

MM Some of mankind’s biggest achievements have come by the rearranging of the old in a new way or seeing old concepts in new ways. It would seem that is what you are doing here. 

DR Indeed. One of the best feelings in the world is when we see an existing situation in a completely new light. Making new connections between unexpected elements turns out to be a wonderful way of generating positive feelings in the brain too. It's what we do when we do a crossword puzzle, read a book or watch a movie. 

Neuroleadership is about helping leaders understand how their own and their people's minds and brains actually work, replacing our current guesswork. Humans have a long history of incorrect assumptions about the world. We think for example that rewards motivate people. Actually it is anticipation of a reward that motivates, the reward itself does little. And the anticipation is closely linked to attention. We think that punishment drives change. Actually punishment or the threat of it focuses attention, and it’s attention that drives change. However punishment can send attention to some less than helpful places too. So if we know that attention changes the brain, let's get better at understanding attention, instead of focusing so much on reward or punishment. When you look at attention, you see that it's very closely tied to our social world. Then you begin to see just how much of an impact human beings have on each other’s attention, whether we like it or not. So this is perhaps a whole new area to explore, which might have greater benefits than only studying the carrot and stick. And all this just comes from seeing that attention is the active ingredient in change. My point is: having a new frame of reference, as well as feeling good, may be more useful than we realize at first. 

MM The result of bringing these disciplines together is for leaders to gain insight on how to best help others to think better—for themselves. This would seem to be quite significant. 

DR Leaders have established their own, often nonarticulated, scientific theories for how people work. The science will help leaders build more accurate understandings of how we work, so we can become more effective at leading. Leaders are, after all, by nature, rational beings—and so they should be. This field provides a rational science to explain many things that are not being given enough attention in the workplace. By speaking to leaders and organizations about human issues, in the language that they are used to, we may be able to improve how workplaces function.