Fierce Leadership: Seeking Positive Transformation Through Neuroscience

The team is delighted to welcome Nick Bennett as a guest blogger. As one of the leading internationally credentialed coaches and facilitators in regional Queensland, Nick has a lot to say about what neuroscience contributes to our understanding of positive leadership.  

When I am doing things for you, I am doing them because I have to! When I am doing them for me, I am doing them because I want to!

This statement reveals the underlying issues in a hierarchy—an organisational condition that, in terms of our current understanding of neuroscience, we will hopefully find relegated to the annals of history as something to provide lessons in how not to bring out the best in people.

For effective leadership in the future, the question is: As leaders, how can we build alignment, create the mind-opening opportunities that enable people to provide discretionary effort, and ensure that they engage with a sense of purpose and inclusion?

First, we can embrace principles that neuroscience confirms effective. We can use brain-friendly communication strategies to bring out the best in our teams. Additionally, we can strive to create an environment that fosters ‘mind-space’ and engages the brains of individuals, teams and organisations. For many managers, this means a fundamental shift in the way they perceive themselves in the role they play in building a successful and sustainable business.

By understanding how the brain responds to perceived threats and rewards, how it has a desire for novelty and distraction, and how it is involved in a continuous internal dialogue, we can transform not only our approach but also the results that others provide.

It’s a simple fact that we are judgment-making machines. At lightning speed, we filter every situation we encounter through our own personal map of the world, the geography of which is carved by every event that has occurred in our lives. The emotional impact of these events creates the geomorphology (layers, pressure and time) that establishes our pattern of responding behaviour.

This being the case, then, no two maps of the world are alike, regardless of how similar the geography or geomorphology, and yet our systems—education, management, government—are generally aligned in a linear approach that discourages individualism, enables competition, and celebrates the average!

This flies in the face of what neuroscience shows us: The powerhouse that is the human brain needs to be able to engage fully.  Brains require the stimulation provided by novelty and distraction.  They need the opportunity for time to think, the practice of doing non-work in socially interactive spaces, the chance for the unconscious mind to reach into the recesses of its considerable content store to collect data and produce the ‘ahas’ that link insight to innovation.

Our systems are transactional, and yet our needs as individuals or teams need to be engaged by more transformational styles, those highly interpersonal and brain-engaging approaches that assist us in finding our own solutions or that have us willingly contribute to the success of others.

Since we are judgment-making machines, anything that doesn’t fit our map of the world is perceived as a threat. Susan Scott in her book Fierce Leadership says, “I am always having a conversation with myself – sometimes it includes other people!” It’s worthy of reflection, given that we have a wiring that tends to focus on the negative in a situation rather than the positive, something researchers call a “positive-negative asymmetry”. In Australia, our language reflects this in everyday conversation.  For example, when someone’s asked, “How are you today?” he might answer, “Not bad.” As a leader, developing a strong positive internal dialogue can help you develop strong positive conversations among your team.

Consider how much time you spend discussing what’s worked well, looking for the bright spots. When you’re putting information out or communicating to your team, how much effort do you put into providing context? How often do you engage in genuine open discussion on possibilities without constraint? When you debrief do you ask, “What worked well?” and “What could be done differently or improved?”

At the core of all behaviour is an emotional connection—the map of the world. By understanding and applying transformational styles to our leadership, seeking to inspire, engage, influence and challenge, the better our relationships will be. The more we can include our team and the individuals in it to define their purpose, the more challenge we can provide to their roles, the more we support them to develop and engage them in defining that, the less likely we will be perceived as a threat.

I am not a neuroscientist, I am a facilitator and coach. For me, neuroscience has provided answers that I give to those who are sceptical about the process of both coaching and facilitation.  I’m able to show how organisational transformations occur and why these changed relationships and successes are not hard but easy.

It has been and continues to be a worthy education.


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