The Neuroscience Lens: Bringing Focus to Current Leadership Models

In our work with clients across a range of industries, a common question we get asked is: Can neuroscience be applied to the many leadership models that exist? The answer is a resounding yes!

Naturally, the size and complexity of the business will determine what solutions or combination of solutions get implemented. However, we’ve found that there are some common issues that tend to cut across all businesses where neuroscience insights can help.

Focusing too much on competency

For example, many business models are focused primarily on competency outcomes. This means that the framework is designed to impart a new set of skills to create ‘better leaders’. The problem is that these frameworks are described with terms like ‘ethical leadership’, ‘inspirational leadership’, ‘charismatic leadership’, ‘leadership philosophy’, ‘authentic leadership’, and ‘servant leadership’, names that don’t really (in some cases, shouldn’t) capture the reality of a leader.

From our experience, such models don’t bring much long-term embedded leadership capability. In fact, they can easily damage corporate culture because the focus is on the leadership and on ‘generic’ competency, and not on cultivating individual skills and talent among the workforce. Additionally, leadership capability frameworks can often create threat responses in the general culture, because it embeds hierarchical behaviour in organisations, while limiting both innovation and the more self-empowered leadership required in the ‘wisdom age’.

Any organisation that over-emphasises the importance of technical leadership competency fails to recognise the often-untapped value contained in the whole of the person, including untrained emotional skills. It’s the cumulative power of a person’s emotional skills (often the hidden part of the iceberg) that creates real value in a leader. It’s not necessarily what a person knows as much as how they’re able to use what they know to support other people in the business to execute strategy.

Prioritising process at the expense of people

Secondly, while many of the leadership models — around since the 1980s — provide for the business, use great leadership language, and focus on technical competencies, in my experience, the tools that are provided to leaders are not always the most tangible. Often the sessions they attend support knowledge uplift but not the mindset shift that is really needed.

The value organisations should be cultivating in people is their ability to align purpose, vision, values, character, and commitment with demonstrated competency. A first step is acknowledging that competency isn’t the entirety of a leader’s ability (and certainly shouldn’t be the only standard of measurement), and then recognising it’s a only small part of the equation. Unfortunately, in many cases, decision makers treat it as if it’s the only thing that matters. More focus on people and less on process will always create better outcomes.

Staying in a fixed mindset instead of a growth mindset

You can possess the greatest technical leadership knowledge and know all the great models and philosophies, but that doesn’t make you a good leader. If you don’t know how to build empathy, be collaborative, communicate clearly, accept input and feedback, and allow your humility to overshadow your hubris, you will never empower people to be engaged, agile, and productive.

Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, The new psychology of success gives some very sound advice about engaging the whole mind as opposed to just our prefrontal cortex (the CEO of our brains).

When considered in light of many of the old business models and frameworks, Dweck’s observations are revolutionary and show what a powerful impact neuroscience research is having on how we approach leadership. Too many of these older frameworks focus on the development and activity of the prefrontal cortex, as opposed to understanding the huge role the limbic system (the emotional centre of our brains) plays in our day-to-day functioning.

The human mind is a powerful thing. The stories we tell ourselves and the things we believe about ourselves can either prevent change from happening or allow new skills to develop. Dweck observes that the beliefs we hold about our abilities and potential fuel our behaviour and predict our success. Her research indicates how changing even the simplest of our beliefs about how we view life can have a profound impact on how we perform as a leader.

One of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality and our behaviour. A fixed mindset assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are unchangeable and that success is the confirmation of those features. A fixed mindset strives for success and avoids failure at all costs. It becomes a way of maintaining the sense of ‘being smart’ or being a great leader.

The opposite to this is a growth mindset, which thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.

Arising from these two mindsets, which we learn and often embed from a very early age, comes a great deal of our behaviour, our relationship with success and failure, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

According to Dweck, a growth mindset is the conviction that qualities such as intelligence and creativity (two things many organisations are looking for in their leaders) can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are leaders with a growth mindset not discouraged by failure, they don’t actually see themselves as failing. Rather, they see themselves as learning and experiencing. Imagine if you could build those competencies into your organisational leadership framework, tools, philosophies, and get your leaders to practice this.

Alternative thinking

At neuresource group, we believe in challenging the disconnect between what business does and what science knows, and the rapidly emerging information about neurobiology may challenge some of the most popular leadership models, frameworks, and tools. Here are some things you can do to adapt existing leadership models and frameworks with neuroscience insights:

  • Get rid of outdated philosophies. Telling others what to do and what symbols and language to use (which is often the case in some leadership models and frameworks) doesn’t work. In fact, the more we try to convince people of something, the more they push back. It’s our brains telling us something doesn’t add up. Don’t hesitate to shed what isn’t working and ask your people what will work.
  • Design leadership solutions that promote growth mindset. Imagine if you could build those competencies into your organisational leadership framework, tools, philsophies and your leaders practice this behaviour that isn’t about pass or fail but about mindful growth and performance.
  • Apply language that speaks to the limbic system. Find language that resonates with our emotional centre. Teach your leaders to change the way they interact with people. Great leaders know how to intuitively align their communication to their peoples limbic system for influence.
  • Give people the ability to influence. We know from neuroscience that people are more rewarded more by ‘being valued’ than by high salaries. Let all employees know their contributions and viewpoints are important and provide opportunities for the collective brain to provide input into the leadership solutions they are to be involved in. Give people control and influence over how leadership is applied to the business and having autonomy over the application of what tools.
  • Start small. Do one small thing differently; then, get and give positive feedback, so that the change feels good. Repeat the behaviour over and over again until it becomes a hard-wired habit.

We live in time that has moved well beyond competency and outcome-driven leadership models. Unfortunately, they remain entrenched in the business world as the idea of best practice. We are long overdue for a shift to new practice. It’s simply not possible to change or develop more desirable leadership behaviours by refusing to embrace contemporary approaches. The good news is that we don’t have to throw everything out and start over. By looking at current business practices through a neuroscience lens, it’s easy to tweak what we are doing and to apply a few simple principles that make us the scientists of our own experience in developing solutions, designed and implemented by our own people, that work well for our individual businesses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *