Neuroleadership: A Field Moving Us Towards Sustainable Performance

Traditionally, leaders go down in history for their impressive list of accomplishments and contributions to society. When analysing the conditions that make leaders who they are, we talk about a leader’s specific upbringing, education and experiences. An even deeper analysis can also include a study of the psychology of leaders and their resilience in pursuing their goals. However, we often ignore the source of this resilience: neuroplasticity, in other words, the ability for the brain to change itself.

Neuroscience is the study of how the nervous system develops, its structure, and what it does. Neuroscience helps us understand the effect of the brain on our behaviour.  In this context, applied neuroscience can help improve workplace performance. Neuroleadership is a term coined by David Rock in 2006, summarising the concept of applying neuroscience to leadership development and management training.

Dr Tara Swart is a leadership coach with a PhD in neuroscience whose research is at the forefront of the application of neuroscience in different industry sectors for developing the next generation of business leaders. She started The Unlimited Mind consultancy that applies neuroscience to create innovative models of leadership and team coaching in diverse sectors (i.e. financial services, natural resource management, and media). She has been interviewed about whether leaders are born or made.  

She explains that applying neuroscience to leadership can help leverage diversity of thinking in teams, cultivate a culture of trust and creativity, and facilitate adaptability to change. Such observed positive applications enable sustainable behaviour change of leaders regardless of the organisation. Neuroscience provides a breadth of knowledge for managers that want to develop their non-technical skills. (i.e. creating a space for employees to do their best work and be proactive; self-regulation of emotions; managing different expectations within a diverse team). She speaks of 4 steps to create sustainable behaviour change:

  1. Raising awareness regarding behaviour that needs to change;

  2. Focusing attention on the new desired behaviour (the brain reroutes the blood supply to what we are focusing on);

  3. Deliberate practice (intensity of practice lays down a fully-formed pathway that is repeated to become the new default practice);

  4. Therapeutic relationship (i.e. with a coach, friend, therapist, or technological applications that can keep you accountable to change).

Dr Swart’s research shows that neuroplasticity manifests itself in different activities. For activities that we enjoy and do well, we have already acquired a repetitive neural pathway to complete this activity. For activities for which we have a large potential but still need to improve on, neuroplasticity is more intensive in that more neurons are connecting to accommodate the development of a skill. For activities that are completely new and don’t come naturally to us, this demands additional oxygen and glucose for the new neural pathways and the higher rate of neuroplasticity. These activities are very resource-intensive.

The brain is an organ of interconnection and the ability to connect neurons in more areas comes from repeated exposure to different experiences.  Exposing teams to new and different challenges while providing the support to withstand these new challenges and stresses, is key to increasing performance and providing strength-based learning.

An example of an activity that encourages neuroplasticity is a facilitated ideation-strategy session designed to promote creative thinking. Hitachi Data Systems executives tested this out. They were asked to think about repositioning their business while being given prompts by a classics professor about traditions in Ancient Athens. The executives ended up using the structure of a Greek agora to inspire how they would reorganise the company. They weren’t given specific instructions on how to do so, but their conversation with the professor inspired them to create a new and potentially better way to share information.

Hence, immersing themselves in a whole new vocabulary and wealth of knowledge thanks to the professor allowed them to develop news systems of thinking. The executives, as a result, demonstrated a willingness to step back from their existing beliefs and prejudices to cultivate new ideas and perspectives. Following this reasoning, leaders can be “made” if they make the conscious decision to change and are willing to adapt to new situations that stimulate their neuroplasticity.

Alan Watkins, founder and CEO of Complete Coherence Ltd., has also addressed the neurological conditioning for changing behaviour in his work.  He is recognised as an international expert on leadership and human performance, with a degree in psychology and PhD in immunology.

Watkins’ argument is that understanding what drives behaviour is the only way to change performance.  How we think determines what we do. Sustainable change or consistent performance isn’t possible without understanding how people think. And how people think is based on how they feel. And to change the feelings, we have to identify the raw emotions beneath them. To change behavioural habits, we have to change the biological context in which thoughts emerge.

What makes neuroleadership so innovative is that it provides solutions for professionals based on science to improve performance, manage diversity and facilitate better learning. These types of solutions are becoming more concretely formalised with research organisations like the NeuroLeadership Institute that offers educational programs utilising breakthroughs in neuroscience in order to transform leadership effectiveness. Their programs focus on problem-solving, emotional regulation, team collaboration and change management.

It is undeniable that neuroplasticity plays a key part in achieving sustainable behaviour change for employees, managers, and executives to grow into the leaders they want to be. It will be exciting to see how neuroleadership continues to grow as a field of applied learning and experimentation for organisations and individuals to excel beyond their previously perceived insurmountable limits.

Dr. Swart has authored and co-authored over 20 articles in journals of neuroscience and coaching. She speaks globally on the brain in business at international conferences, corporations and at top business schools including Oxford, Stanford and MIT.

Dr. Watkins has researched and published widely on psychology and immunology for over 18 years. He is currently an Honorary Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience and Psychological Medicine at Imperial College, London as well as an Affiliate Professor of Leadership at the European School of Management, London.