Ever since I was a teenager, I have always wanted to understand why? Why do we do the things we do? What shapes and defines our behaviour? Can we change this? Essentially what it means to be human.
Through neuroscience, I now understand that this curiosity began when the prefrontal cortex area of my brain started to develop more profoundly, in adolescence, around aged 15. I began to understand space and time, observing and reflecting on the behaviours of myself and of others.
Over the last two decades, in parallel, I have become deeply curious about technology and how this is fundamentally changing the behaviour of the human species. I believe that technology, in many ways, is a reflection of humanity, and is helping us to understand ourselves better.
This life-long curiosity, grounded in human psychology and philosophy takes my understanding only so far. So when I discovered neuroscience and its relationship to leadership, it opened up a completely different perspective of human exploration and a greater depth of learning. Taking my awareness to a whole new level!
As a leader, I understand and appreciate the importance of curiosity, self-awareness, collaboration, performance, agility and innovation.
And have observed over the last decade or so, since the birth of the smartphone in 2007, the way we build and grow businesses has radically changed.
What we need and expect from leadership is now entirely different.
As consumers, we expect so much more because of our devices and their 24/7 accessibility and this has fundamentally changed our behaviour, our wants and needs. We spend a lot of time with our smartphones these days!
Technology is now so accessible that literally anyone can innovate and distribute to a global audience.
Disrupt or be disrupted!
Disruption is everywhere, not just with apps like Uber and Citymapper revolutionising smarter travel, but with companies in even the most highly regulated industries like finance; with ‘mobile-first’ user experiences from N26 and Monzo.
Competition is no longer about your industry peers, but from behemoth’s like Amazon and Google, or from the startup world, nipping at the corporate world’s heels! All fighting to hire the best talent in the world and increase their reach and value.
The need to innovate has never been more critical for survival in the modern business world.
And all of this has happened in just the last decade.
We are standing at the tip of this iceberg. With significantly more change to come when AI and automation are ubiquitous in all of our businesses, and the digital products and services, we continue to consume.
What does this mean for leadership?
And how have the changes in the last decade evolved the way we now need to lead our businesses?
For leadership — we need to get ready today, for tomorrow!
Our businesses need us and our teams to consistently deliver our best performance, quarter after quarter, year on year in a fast-moving world of increasing uncertainty.
To satisfy changing customer demands, businesses must be continuously innovating to stay ahead. Developing new products and services, and innovating internal ways of working. Imagining new and better ways.
In order to do this, we cannot do it alone. In this era, we must collaborate together. Internally with our peers, our teams and externally with new partnerships (start-ups) and new technologies.
And do all of this in a globally and digitally connected world. How amazing, yet also how daunting when this is alongside un-learning and re-learning, so as not to get left behind.
Because applying outdated leadership approaches, models and frameworks simply don’t work anymore.
Having an analogue mindset in a digital world, with behaviours and attitudes from the previous era of work is quite simply, not fit for purpose. It’s redundant.
Our role as leaders is so much more now. We are delivering leadership under substantially increased levels of complexity, pace and expectation — from all angles of our internal and external worlds.
And on top of this, we don’t know all of the answers any more, and how could we? But quite frankly, we don’t need to, we just “ask Google”.
For now, it’s about bringing to work a ‘beginners mindset’ that recognises that I don’t know, but is willing to ask the right questions to explore and experiment with what comes forward.
For many leaders and many businesses, this is a radical shift.
From command and control, into collaboration and innovation. Hierarchical, into flatter structures. Analytical thinking into social thinking.
So with this in mind, let’s understand the impact on our brain circuitry when we receive old-style leadership behaviours of command and control, and why they don’t work anymore.
These old-style behaviours induce fear, anxiety and stress, which activates the hormone cortisol in the brain. Cortisol closes down the effective functioning of the prefrontal cortex; our big thinking, ideas and concepts, connecting the dots part of the brain. Which is essential for our creative thought process and insight.
Cortisol mobilises the body for energy (also known as the fight, flight or freeze response), putting the entire metabolism on high alert. As a result of this, we lose our ability to think rationally and to problem solve.
The exact opposite of what is needed in the modern workplace!
Fear also encourages us to have negative thought processes. To combat this requires focus, mental agility and the self-awareness to train yourself to avoid these negative emotions.
In contrast, another neurochemistry; oxytocin — brings people together, it builds trust and fosters collaboration.
In fact, our brains, because of our limbic region, are hardwired to connect to others, thanks to this mammalian part of the brain.
As leaders, when we create environments where people feel connected, supported, valued and in a place of psychological safety, it’s no surprise that inspiration, innovation, creativity and performance flourish.
Leaders who encourage learning and reward curiosity will also create optimum conditions for innovation.
As a leader, by really knowing oneself and how our impact is felt by others, we bring higher levels of empathy and self-awareness, and in turn, create much stronger, deeper and more effective relationships with others.
And as we know, every part of life is about relationships. Effective leadership is how we relate to others.
Therefore, as leaders, we must become conscious of our behaviour — especially because followers mimic a leader’s actions. To be effective leaders, we must become more self-aware.
This is a seismic shift in society, where analytical thinking has taken the front seat in the last two decades, over social thinking (like empathy). We know that the analytical part of the brain is completely different from the part of the brain that wants us to connect (our social circuits). By using one, you are strengthening its neural pathways and effectively shutting off the ability of the other.
It’s no wonder we are seeing the rise of more women leaders in the workplace because women tend to have more connections in the brain between the limbic (emotion/ evaluation) region and the prefrontal cortex (big picture thinking/ problem solving) — allowing them to be more aware of emotional tones and have higher levels of empathy and self-awareness.
The good news is that all of our behaviours can be linked back to our brain, and with breakthroughs in neuroplasticity over the last decade, we have demonstrated that we can continuously adapt our brains.
By applying neuroscience to leadership, we begin to understand how our brain functions and what affects its optimum performance.
For leaders and future leaders, this is an extraordinary superpower level of awareness and understanding!
Understanding the impact on our brain functioning from things like; how much/ or how little we sleep is hugely insightful. As well as the importance of allowing time and space with no distractions, to tap into our creativity through meditation and inner-directed thought.
The power of movement and exercise, what we eat. How we connect with our heart and tap into our intuition.
All combine to enable us to become the most effective leader we can be.
Through a deep level of understanding of neuroscience and leadership, combined with the insight from 360 feedback, we can now deploy new strategies for the enablement of our brain, and our whole self, to function at its very best, more consistently of the time.
If you’d like to know more, reach me on firstname.lastname@example.org