Bringing Leadership Into Focus Through The Lens Of Neuroscience

June 29, 2012 by  Filed under: Management 

What makes great leadership? Why do some leaders soar and command the respect of colleagues and peers alike, while others blow their chances and make the national news headlines for their blunders?

That’s a question that’s been challenging business for ages and new findings from neuroscience are starting to unlock some of the secrets of successful leadership.

Neuroscientist use scanning technology to show what’s going on in the brain in response to certain triggers, so it helps us to see the brain make-up of different types of leaders and to draw conclusions from it.

We still don’t know the full picture, of course, but it’s certainly coming more into focus.

The Four Personalities

There have been well-publicised cases of poor leadership resulting in companies going under and court cases with convictions resulting. What prompts these bad decisions and poor judgements that affect organisations so profoundly?

According to Dr. Helen Fisher, who investigates brain chemistry at Rutgers University, there are four basic temperaments or personalities that people demonstrate:

· The “Explorer- expressive of dopamine

· The “Director” – expressive of testosterone

· The “Builder” – expressive of serotonin

· The “Negotiator” – expressive of estrogen and oxytocin

These temperaments are displayed by all people (men and women) in all races and the theory is that these predominant characteristics will help determine behaviours of leaders within any organisation; so, for instance, when you get poor judgements leading to big mistakes at the top, the combination of Director and Explorer may be too dominant.

These traits make the leaders overly daring and direct, more prone to making decisions and taking risks independently and assertively; while these characteristics are necessary in leaders aspiring for the top, they are sometimes not balanced with the more empathic tendencies that help them consider the consequences of actions in others, for example.

Testosterone is a chemical that is released in competitive environments, and it also leads to the release of dopamine, increasing creativity and energy levels, but also heightening the likelihood of risk taking.

This can eventually lead to a feeling of invincibility and a “living in a bubble” mentality in top executives who experience these wins again and again and actually thrive on the hormonal and chemical “shots” they receive; risk-taking becomes habitual and even addictive, obscuring the body’s natural warning signs, which can eventually lead to calamitous errors of judgement.

Learning Points

The above scenario means that it’s a good idea for leaders who fall into this Director – Explorer bracket, to surround themselves with people who cover their weaknesses; of course this is an age-old strategy, but the findings of brain science help us to identify what those weaknesses may be and how we can best counterbalance them.

For instance, risk takers need more negotiators and reflective thinkers around them, and people who empathise better with other people and departments in an organisation, so that the “other side of the coin” is considered; not only do these co-leaders need to be present but they need to have the boldness and courage to speak up.

Better Leadership Brains

Neuroscience has discovered “neuroplasticity”, which means that our brains are not wired for life; instead, our neural pathways are constantly changing and that means we can change our behaviours and habits.

Leaders themselves can develop their brains for better performance, under the right guidance, to make sure they grow, climb even higher and create sustainable leadership success.

Recognising weaknesses in leadership in our organisations may be the first step to avoiding the types of disastrous decisions we read about, through proactive change in the organisational culture and bringing leaders more into line as part of a leadership team with the organisational interests placed ahead of private interests.

Placing the right leaders in the right levels of the organisation and working with the right teams is helped by understanding how the brain affects human behaviour.

Several new leadership models have emerged from the findings of neuroscience; Peter Burow’s Strategic Mindsets model is another of those we have covered in other articles.

The team at NeuroPower can help with producing better organisational performance through enhanced understanding of leadership. Find out how at the NeuroPower website:

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