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NeuroLeadership: Leading The Way

, November 1, 2013, 0 Comments

Applying Neuroscience to Leadership

Applying Neuroscience to Leadership: NeuroLeadership


An organizational leader is under pressure to improve overall organizational performance including the bottom line. The leader’s problem- ‘the teams operate with a silo mentality’. The leader can improve performance only when team members work together. To make this happen and to break ‘silo operation’, the leader needs to change individual and team behavior. The leader employs change management professionals who try to introduce change through the use of well-known models. But, old techniques to change behavior do not seem to work.

Now the question why is change so difficult? Any change poses a threat, makes people anxious and pushes people to deal with uncertainty. A leader needs to understand how the brain works to make change stick and for people to adopt new habits.

A ‘NeuroLeadership’Approach
An organizational leader (in the example above) who practices NeuroLeadership, understands how the brain works to handle change. Given that change is viewed as a threat causing pain and knowing that rewards cause pleasure, a NeuroLeader uses a more reward-based approach to facilitate change possibly using the SCARF or the AGES model, addressing the social brain. When a leader uses neuroscience principles, the leader understands how change affects the brain and why there is resistance to change.

A NeuroLeader focuses on the future and not on the past. The leader takes a self insight approach for himself/herself than advice giving, a leader practicing NeuroLeadership works on creating new neural pathways and focuses on only one idea at the one time.

About NeuroLeadership
We know of leadership and leaders as transformational, visionary, transactional and now there is ‘NeuroLeadership’. NeuroLeadership is a term first coined by Dr. David Rock. NeuroLeadership refers to the application of neuroscience to the field of leadership and related leadership areas of leadership behavior, leadership thinking, change management and coaching. The advocates of the emerging field of NeuroLeadership believe that the field of neuroscience reveals and provides useful insights into the field of leadership and how leaders must lead effectively.

Where understanding of neuroscience comes in
Neuroscience is the study of the brain and the nervous system. A major goal of the field of neuroscience is to study how neurons (network of linked nerve cells) interact to generate behavior. NeuroLeadership as outlined by Dr. David Rock is the application of neuroscience to leadership practice. According to Tobias Kiefer of Booz and company, NeuroLeadership is the art of synchronizing the science of the brain with leadership behaviors.

Our brain is a complex organ. The part called the ‘basal ganglia’ helps us with our routine behaviors and habits that become ingrained, like driving a car. After some months of driving you don’t have to “think” too much.  Then we have our “working memory” which takes in new information that we receive. Please note that the brain is more complex and I have oversimplified the workings of the brain for this discussion.

Our working memory has to make room for new information. Our brain categorizes everything as either threat or reward. A change is viewed as a threat because the brain has to deal with new information, new behavior and form new habits. This is the reason why we resist change. Our old ways are comforting and comes naturally, unconsciously and effortlessly to us. But, where there is a reward on offer we gravitate towards it.

Simply put, NeuroLeadership is in practice the neuroscience of:

• Making decisions and solving problems

• Regulating emotions

• Collaborating with others

• Facilitating change

There are critics of NeuroLeadership who question the value added by scientific brain data to the already known facts in the field of leadership. How is it going to make people better or effective leaders?

The Skeptics
The field of NeuroLeadership is not without its skeptics. A blog post (NeuroBollocks) outlines that neuroscience and therefore NeuroLeadership is nothing but old psychology in a new garb. But leader effectiveness remains an enigma and elusive so in my opinion understanding how the brain of a leader and that of the followers function and respond may be the missing piece of the leadership effectiveness puzzle. After all, our brain controls our emotions, motor skills, cognition and behavior.

I am fascinated by the working of the brain and how its understanding can help a leader but practicing NeuroLeadership requires conversations, models and understanding of the social brain. The field of leadership has tried using practices of exemplary leadership as proposed by Kouzes and Posner or transformational leadership as proposed by Burns and later extended by Bernard Bass but the concept of successful leadership is still elusive. Maybe NeuroLeadership is the missing ingredient!

Parting Comment
Leadership behavior is simple- treat people the way you want to be treated; the rest is elementary; planning, managing, organizing and delivering.

For more info on NeuroLeadership read:
‘Your Brain At Work’ by David Rock
‘Quiet Leadership’ by David Rock

Do you think NeuroLeadership is the missing puzzle piece?