The best leaders have healthy brains

  • Business
  • Saturday, 13 Mar 2010

“In essence, every organisation is a product of how its members think and interact.” — Peter Senge

LAST week at IMD Switzerland, I met brain researcher Terry Small, who posed a very interesting question: “What is the most important part of your body with regards to leadership?”

I immediately answered, “The brain.” Our emotions, intellect, knowledge and expertise all reside in the brain.

“Absolutely,” he answered. And he asked a second question: “So, if your brain is critical to leadership success, how many books on the brain have you read?”

I had to pause for a second as I knew he was right. If the brain is so important to leadership, why aren’t leaders more interested in knowing how to develop and grow a healthy brain? Thus began my exploration of the brain and leadership.

The brain is involved in everything we do. In Primal Leadership: Realising the Power of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee demonstrate that leaders appointed solely on the basis of IQ and technical ability, lack the necessary emotional competencies to lead effectively.

They argue that high-performing leaders have both high EQ and IQ levels. Both are directly connected and controlled by the brain. The limbic system in the brain controls your emotions, impulses and drives, whilst your neocortex is the part of your brain that manages IQ, knowledge and learning.

Human emotions are brain-controlled and spread charismatically whenever people are near each other, even with no verbal contact.

When emotionally engaging leaders were observed, their followers harmonised most readily with the leaders’ ideas, and ultimately “caught” the leaders’ moods.

Mental exercise

High-energy and positive leaders like British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson effortlessly transfers optimism to his followers, while the negative ones wear down their employees.

On the other hand, when a leader perceives a threat or is under stress, their brain acts differently and an “amygdala hijack” is likely to happen, where we act on impulse instead of reason.

A person with high emotional intelligence vetoes this hijack, but an “untrained” brain will not be able to prevent an “amygdala hijack” and there will be a reactionary response.

(The amygdala is the part of the brain that figures how we process and recall emotional reactions.)

Wang Laboratories, a top technology company in the 1980s, was destroyed by a bad decision that was highly emotional by its then leader, An Wang.

A leader’s ability to manage emotions is critical as emotions can compromise or sabotage your ability to make effective decisions.

Recently, I wrote about “gut feeling” and how our life’s wisdom and experiences are stored by the brain and retrieved when we face an emergency complex situation.

World-class leaders learn to develop their “gut feel” by managing an emotional brain part called the basal ganglia.

Interestingly, our brain actually gets better the more we use it. The same with our bodies – the more you use it the longer it lasts.

Since 1986, scientist David Snowdon studied 678 nuns of Mankato, many of whom lived past 100 years. He painstakingly collected data, tested them and dissected their brains after death. Among the findings of this study:

● An active intellectual life prolongs your brain’s lifespan and protects you from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease;

● Those who express the most positive emotions in their language end up living longest;

● The brain retains the capacity to change and grow stronger even in elderly people;

● Those who teach and are constantly challenging their minds live longer than folks who don’t; and

● Strong bonding develops positive emotional intelligence, which leads to a sharper mind.

After the Mankato nuns’ deaths, scientists were shocked to see that parts of the brains that generally wither with age did not do so in the brains of these women. How did these nuns manage to remain sharp and productive even after 100 years?

Researchers have found that intellectual stimulation of only 20 minutes a day can spur new neuron growth. Brain exercises were the norm for these nuns, who lived by the principle that an idle mind is the devil’s playground.

They wrote spiritual meditations in their journals, letters to their politicians and doggedly challenged themselves with quizzes, puzzles, and debates on current events.

Understanding the feelgood factors

Your brain has the capacity to continue to develop and grow. A growing brain keeps mastering the competencies of leadership – everything from self-confidence and decision-making to empathy and persuasion to running effective meetings – until it gets it right.

Our brain thrives on change and challenges. But in most cases, people resist change because of the pain of change. The brain’s main function is to keep you alive and resist pain.

Generally, the brain pushes back when instructed what to do. This is attributed to homeostasis, the movement of organisms toward equilibrium and away from instructed change.

On the other hand, your brain will release an adrenaline-like rush of neurotransmitters when you figure out how to solve a problem yourself rather than being told how to solve it by your bosses.

When I returned to Malaysia 10 years ago and helped in the turnaround of an organisation, one of the methods we deployed was to conduct mini action labs, where employees were given the opportunity to solve a problem, recommend and implement the solutions.

Within a short period, there was high engagement and the turnaround was swift and effortless, driven by the employees.

Compare that with numerous attempted turnarounds when a commanding CEO comes in and dictates the terms of the change.

There is usually huge resistance to the change and failure. Leaders who leverage brain-power will understand the need for engagement and employee participation in any change effort.

Our emotional brain has neural pathways that pump out streams of good feelings when a goal is accomplished and reduces feelings of worry and frustration in achieving the target. Great leaders use this in their change efforts too.

Leadership by reflection

Many leaders still hold on to the old adage of leadership by command and control. Instead, empathy and social intelligence is the way forward. A newly discovered brain neuron, called the mirror neuron, enables leaders to learn empathy.

Mirror neurons, discovered accidentally by Italian neuroscientists monitoring a monkey’s brain, show that the brain has neurons that mirror what others do.

“When we consciously or unconsciously detect someone else’s emotions through their actions, our mirror neurons reproduce those emotions. Collectively, these neurons create an instant sense of shared experience,” wrote Goleman and Boyatzis.

Additionally, mirror neurons enable leaders’ emotions and actions to be mirrored by their followers. This role-modelling was never truly understood until the mirror neuron discovery.

So, a leader’s action is more important than his words. The brain thinks in pictures not words.

Finally, if you really have no time to develop and grow your brain, the least you can do is keep your brain healthy.

Small’s research concludes that by just eating a few prunes a day, you “reduce the chances of Alzheimer’s disease by 92%.”

The brain is 80% water. So, drinking lots of water keeps it hydrated, and listening to baroque music increases your ability to learn by 25% to 400%.

Like you, I am on this new journey of discovering the power of the brain in leadership. For starters, why not invest 20 minutes of doing something outside your comfort zone each day? At least you will grow some new neurons!

● Roshan Thiran is CEO of Leaderonomics, a social enterprise providing leadership development and consulting services to MNCs. Leaderonomics will hold a “Becoming A Talented Manager” programme on March 24 and 25 at Menara Star, Petaling Jaya. To sign up, call 012-3070326 or login to for details.

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