using science-based executive coaching

leadership and the brain’s design

We see intellect and clear thinking as the characteristics that get someone in the leadership door. Without those fundamental abilities, no entry is allowed. However, intellect alone will not make a leader. The neural systems responsible for the intellect and for the emotions are separate, but they have intimately interwoven connections. This brain circuitry, that interweaves thought and feeling, provides the neural basis of being intelligent about emotions. And, despite the great value that business culture often places on an intellect free of emotion, our emotions are, in a very real sense, more powerful than our intellect. In moments of emergency, our emotional centres – the limbic brain – commander the rest of the brain. There’s good reason for this special potency of emotions – they are crucial for survival. But what happens to our ability to lead when the rational part of our brain shuts down and why?

We should take care not to make the intellect our God. It has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead, it can only serve.
– Albert Einstein

What would you say are the implications of Albert’s insight for skilful leadership behaviour?

when the rational part of our brain shuts down

From birth, human beings seek a sense of psychological safety. Our sense of safety is threatened when we experience normal but difficult emotions such as fear, anger, resentment, guilt, jealousy, envy and shame. These feelings are hard to tolerate especially if they are not how we think we should feel. At times our sense of safety is sufficiently threatened to trigger a particularly strong defensive response. The amygdala, part of the limbic brain, scans the environment and reacts if it perceives a threat. When triggered, it sends a message to other parts of the brain, which releases stress hormones, flooding the body with adrenaline, cortisol and other chemicals. We then react involuntarily, the need to protect ourselves takes over, and the prefrontal cortex – the rational, thinking part of our brain – shuts down. When triggered in this way, our ability to listen, reflect and plan is all reduced, emotion is in the driving seat and our behaviour becomes impulsive and unskillful, pushing us into specific dysfunctional leadership styles.

how to remain resourceful and constructive

Modern neuroscience has helped us identify three leadership styles and their underlying emotional and behavioural profiles. These profiles address, among others, the struggles of leaders when under pressure – struggles that involuntarily result in impulsive and unskilful behaviour. Most leaders tend to have one of these profiles as their primary leadership style. Each profile has it its own specific set of closely linked functional and dysfunctional behaviours and leaders move back and forth along this spectrum. Now, this is to say that all leaders will lead well in a particular way and lead badly in a particular way. Learning to identify the key triggers that involuntarily push you in the dysfunctional direction may help you to develop practical new strategies for avoiding these triggers, managing your feelings more effectively when they cannot be avoided, and thus remaining at your most resourceful and constructive as a leader, even under pressure. Luckily, the key triggers of each profile are known and generic. How do you, as a leader, tend to struggle to handle your emotions and behaviour effectively when under pressure? Do you primarily fail to control your anger? Or do you avoid conflict? Or do you disengage emotionally?

self-awareness is a factor in how well a business will do

Overall, the climate – how people feel about working in an organization – can account for 20 to 30 percent of business performance. Getting the best out of people pays off in hard results. If climate drives business results, what drives climate? Roughly 50 to 70 percent of how employees perceive their organization’s climate can be traced to the actions of one person: the leader. More than anyone else, the boss creates the conditions that directly determine people’s ability to work well. Breakthroughs in brain research show why leaders’ moods and actions have enormous impact on those they lead. In short, leaders’ emotional states and actions do affect how the people they lead will feel and therefore perform. How well leaders manage their moods and affect everyone else’s moods, then, becomes not just a private matter, but a factor in how well a business will do. Remaining at your most resourceful and constructive even under stress and high demands is a worthy professional goal for your and your organization’s benefit.

our ability to develop is biologically hard-wired

What we know for sure about the brain is that it is not static. It creates new neural networks and pathways all the time. This is our brain’s plasticity at work – the process by which the brain changes itself continuously. Can thoughts change the brain? Yes, and they do so by reorganizing the neurons and the synapses in the brain. Our brain uses a language of electrochemical messaging. The messages transmitted are the result of physical actions and thinking. And the brain interprets them identically. By changing our thinking we can change the neural pathways in the brain and create new feedback loops, even for deeply rooted beliefs. By actively working with new ways of thinking, choosing new behaviours and practicing them often enough, new neural networks can be formed. Our ability to change and develop is thus biologically hard-wired. Key point? Don’t let your thoughts and behaviours stand in the way of your own professional development.