The Biology and Neuroscience of Leadership Development

When most people speak about leadership development the discussion often evolves around building leadership competencies.  Competencies like market insight, strategic orientation, change leadership, cultivating organizational capabilities, influence and collaboration, customer and market impact, and embracing a results orientation.  In fact, these are the eight key leadership competencies that McKinsey & Co.© measured this past summer in their study, “Do You Have the Right Leaders for Your Growth Strategies?” by Katharina Herrman, Asmus Komm, and Sven Smit.  In the report, they identified only 1% of “C” level executives and “one-step down” executives scored excellent in these critical competencies.  Ninety percent scored below average.

Considering the amount of time and money companies invest in developing leaders, this is more than a bit unsettling.  When we take into consideration the results from the 2010 IBM Global CEO Survey it is even more disconcerting.  In the survey, more than 1,500 CEOs state the single most important leadership attribute they are seeking in future leaders is creativity and the ability to cultivate creativity throughout the organization.  I don’t know about you, but I struggle to find a correlation between the traditional leadership competencies measured by McKinsey, Egon Zehnder International and other leading consultancies and the ability to cultivate creativity.

Looking a little deeper beneath the surface, we can begin to discover the biological and neurological factors that are present in what we often refer to as charismatic, inspirational leaders.  The factors that contribute to transformational leadership capable of inspiring creative thinking can be found in our bodies as much as in our heads.  The underlying drivers of leadership are, in fact, biochemical and neurological in nature.

The emerging research from the neurosciences supports this perspective. Our intelligence emerges from more than our brains.  The neural networks in our hearts (more than 5 million neurons) and our enteric nervous system of the gut have been proven to be active neural networks, capable of triggering the same biochemical responses as the brain to emotional stimuli.

In addition, the electromagnetic field of the heart is 5,000 times stronger than that of the brain. These embodied neural networks are actively seeking environmental information as part of our primary survival mechanism. The states of biological coherence (a balance of blood pressure, heart rate, and brain wave activity), flow (the optimal balance of stress hormones called the HPA axis), and entrainment (a biological state of shared coherence) are all substantiated by peer-reviewed, published research.

What’s challenging for us contemporary humans is how these neural networks are trying to communicate information to us. They combine at the vagus nerve, which is connected to an ancient part of our brain, the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia (part of our reptilian brain) evolved long before the linguistic centers of our higher brain were developed. As such, the information coming into our brain through the basal ganglia emerges as feelings rather than words. Yet, we’re so enamored with language and live in such a technologically noisy world, we tend to dismiss, suppress, or misinterpret these messages of vital importance. In addition, we are culturally trained in business to leave our emotions at home.  Doing so actually may disengage us from our creative capabilities.

The research demonstrates that by cultivating strong neural networks in our pre-frontal cortex, a sort of executive center of the brain, we can engage all of our intelligence centers. The pre-frontal cortex was the last part of our brain to evolve, and in fact, it doesn’t fully develop until we are somewhere between 22 and 27 years of age (those of you with teenagers may already appreciate this fact). The pre-frontal cortex has remarkable connections to the entire brain, and it has plasticity! We can literally change the way we are by building the competencies of Emotional Intelligence put forward by the research of Dr. Daniel Goleman, Peter Solovay, and many others.

When we engage the embodied neural networks of those around us with authentic, positive intention and are congruent emotionally, we create presence. When this occurs, rapport emerges, the first step in establishing motivating and often inspiring relationships. What’s interesting is this happens primarily through non-verbal communication and often emerges unconsciously with those we are leading, doing business with, or even within our own families. What we perceive as “charismatic leaders” do this with natural ease.  It’s why we want to be near them and are passionate in support of their vision.

This is where our approach to Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning diverges from traditional leadership development paths.  This approach to professional development, framed within the scientific research, re-engages us with what can be considered our embodied wisdom. The neural networks that reside throughout our bodies. The ground-based exercises with the horses demonstrate to us firsthand how we connect, engage, and motivate those around us.  This approach also helps us cultivate empathy, mindfulness, and tap in to our inner source of creativity.  This isn’t about competency training or focusing on leadership behaviors.  It is about cultivated a higher level of consciousness and presence that resonates with those that we lead.  It is embodied learning that is immutable and kinesthetic.

When we consider the research from Applied Behavioral Economics, that upwards of 70% of our economic decision making is emotionally-driven, we’d be well served to incorporate a fresh, innovative approach to developing the subtle skills that drive authentic, meaningful business relationships.  It turns out how people feel about us and our leadership is as important, if not more important, than what they think.

The research into effective leadership and employee disengagement continues to pour in and it is all pointing to the fact that what we were doing in the 20th century is no longer working today.  If creativity is the new strategic imperative (and it truly is) the time for changing how we develop leaders is long overdue.

Image courtesy of Precision Photography of Honolulu.

© 2012, Terry Murray.

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