Leadership and the Brain

When I first started my career I worked for a management consultancy so didn’t experience the over bearing bosses close up, but a close friend of mine went to work for BHS. Fresh in and excited it was then that she came across Philip Green who she was utterly terrified of. He would swoop into meetings and demand to know the detail from this young and very junior graduate.

Philip Green is a leader who, whatever you may think of him, has been very successful. One that Stuart Rose ex-chairman and CEO of M&S describes as “a classic bricks-and-mortar retailer”. He’s also someone who has proffered a command and control style of management. His leadership is what is known as ‘great man’ or trait leadership – based on the idea that successful leaders have innate, fixed leadership capabilities which fulfil certain characteristics including the ability to use power and influence to lead.  Everyone who’s been close up and personal with Green talks about his gift for mental arithmetic, instant assessment of value, fast decision making and simplification of complex business dilemmas.  Green himself indirectly alludes to his style being of a less moveable stance saying “If I had wheels, I’d be a car. If: it’s a big word, isn’t it? I can’t deal in if.”

But this fixed style of leadership isn’t relevant or helpful today as we exist on a constant wobble board of change. We operate in a world of economic volatility, rapid advances in technology, intensifying competition and an unpredictable political landscape which all call for clarity of thought and speed of action. A world which deals very much in ‘Ifs’. For example, the founder and CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos says that “This is Day 1 for the Internet. We still have so much to learn.” In interviews Bezos still talks about the Internet as an ­uncharted world, imperfectly understood and yielding new surprises all the time, demonstrating the need to continually evolve and adapt. Amazon develops something new every 11.6 seconds. This simply could not be done through a command and control structure – a boss having to say yes to everything.

As leaders there is a need to constantly adapt and change, but also to understand how to make employees feel secure to get the most from them and bring them along on the journey. And understanding the brain both from the perspective of your own brain and the brains of your employees is a very helpful foundation for the style of leadership needed today.

Let me give you an example of how these two different leadership styles impact employees brains by looking at it through the lens of neuroscience. In 2012, Boyatzis a renowned Professor of Organizational Behavior, Psychology, and Cognitive Science examined the neural substrates activated in experiences with leaders who were good at relating to followers (e.g. Jeff Bezos) and those who were not (e.g. Phillip Green). Subjects responded to the leaders who were good at relating to others by showing activation in 14 regions of the brain, specifically areas associated with attention and relationships.

Subjects responded to leaders who were not good at relating to others with activation in only 6 areas of the brain and deactivation in 11 areas, specifically narrowing attention and initiating negative emotions. The primitive areas of the brain experienced this leader as a threat and the brain responded accordingly. Ready to take flight but not ready to adapt and respond.

This has significant and damaging consequences. Negative emotions lead to cognitive, emotional and perceptual impairment, which in turn limits an employee’s ability to make accurate rational decisions and causes them to have an inaccurate and overly negative view of their environment and those around them. While this may have been sustainable within a command and control structure, the vulnerabilities this style creates in employees become completely disabling in a constantly changing world.

For more on this, your brain as a leader and the brain of your employers log on free to the webinar I’m doing this week with The School for CEOs.

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