Neuroscience: The secret to becoming a better leader

An understanding of how your brain operates may be what separates successful leaders from the failures
Those looking for the secret to becoming a successful business leader have thousands of management books to choose from. The key is knowing which ones to trust – which is why we started the annual Chartered Management Institute (CMI) Management Book of the Year competition. It’s now in its sixth year.
Trends come and go; as soon as we’ve become accustomed to leaning in, we’re exhorted to break all the rules. This year, the fresh challenger on the block is neuroscience, a far cry from the themes of bravery and exploration that dominated last year’s winning book, Not Knowing by Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner.
Neuroscience For Leadership, by Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm and Paul Brown, is typical of the genre, and explains how effective leaders help employees and clients through change and disruption. Matching a scientific understanding of the nervous system to solid advice on decision-making, employee motivation and organisation, the lessons reflect many of the original ideas of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Delving into the brains behind business decisions helps achieve two things: how to understand your own mind, and how to understand the minds of those you’re trying to influence. With Volkswagen blaming its recent scandal on a “mindset tolerant of rule breaking”, getting this right is crucial.
Indeed, an understanding of how your brain operates may be what separates the successful leaders from the unsuccessful. Despite differing approaches, those at the top all seem capable of adapting their thinking to cope with novel situations, be it in the way they tackle a challenge, overcome their problems, or prepare for the next opportunity. This ability, termed neuroplasticity, is apparently like any other ability, and requires regular exercise to stay nimble.
Exercises for the managerial brain, from crosswords to music lessons, are explored in Neuroscience for Leadership, as is the idea of a resilient brain backed by a healthy body. Resilience is one of the seven positive behaviours in Jo Owen’s The Mindset of Success too. In this book, the author also speaks of a darker, ruthless mindset. Recognising and adopting aspects of this “dark side”, such as a reputation for being hard-edged or focused, are key aspects of success.
To avoid a reputation as an oppressive leader, however, managers must understand how others think. A Mind for Business by Andy Gibson discusses the value of intrinsic motivation in the workplace – in other words, how to lock into a team’s internal drive to perform actions for the sake of enjoyment. While it’s unlikely that filling out time-sheets is going to stimulate the reward centre of the brain, it is a concept which has underpinned previously popular management theories such as gamification. Indeed, gamification was successfully harnessed by the University of Washington to engage people in creating an accurate model of an AIDS-causing virus in monkeys – a feat which had stumped scientists for 15 years.
Intrinsic motivation depends upon the fact that many business decisions are not solely driven by reason, but rather stem from unconscious sources. The negative implications of this can be seen in the unconscious bias that affects the hiring of employees. Recognising, compensating and working with these unconscious processes can speed up and aid decision-making in the workplace.
Over the next 12 months, neuroscience looks certain to shape management thinking, and in doing so make the workplace a more rewarding, enjoyable and inspiring place for us all.
Piers Cain is head of stakeholder relations at CMI and the organiser of its Management Book of the Year competition. For the chance to win a copy of all three of the neuroscience books mentioned in this article, plus the other 22 titles shortlisted for the 2015 CMI Management Book of the Year, send your name and address to by 30 December 2015.

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