Neuroscience: can leadership be taught?

Written by
Lady Kitty Chisholm

11 Sep 2015

11 Sep 2015 • by Lady Kitty Chisholm

On trend

Neuroscience has become quite the talking point lately, generating great interest among leaders and managers because it shows that leadership can be learned.
In essence, neuroscience is the study of the development, structures and functions of the nervous system which includes the brain. It is beginning to shed some light on how the brain works and what processes might underlie some behaviours, beliefs and attitudes. For the first time, there is evidence that challenges, confirms or questions some of the experiential and common sense knowledge we have about human learning and behaviour generally – but more specifically it provides insights into the brains of managers and leaders.
A key finding is the extent to which the adult brain can change throughout life, connections can be changed by learning and practice. A vivid example is the brain of London black cab drivers, which has a much larger hippocampus than that of ordinary drivers, as a result of studying and then applying, ‘The Knowledge’. Interestingly, that same part of the brain starts to decrease in size in cab drivers about three months into retirement.
In one sense, any learning changes the brain: your brain will have already changed since you started reading this article. The question that really matters especially to HR and training professionals is what enables the brain to change sustainably, so that new, desired behaviours become the default.

Train your brain

Can leadership behaviours, such as self-control, focused attention or strategic thinking, be learned and become the normal way an individual works? You won’t be surprised to hear that there is no silver bullet and that sustainable change, especially when it involves changing deeply entrenched attitudes and behaviours, is hard work. However some key leadership behaviours, once thought to be innate, can be learned.

Regular practice of mindfulness can increase a leader’s ability not only to focus attention but to change focus rapidly when needed, this is because it exercises the pre-Frontal frontal cortex, the brain’s ‘executive centre’. Practicing a series of mental exercises, including meditation, can increase compassion and hence the ability to connect with others as Tania Singer, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, told  global business community at Davos in January 2015.

It perhaps seems obvious, but developing expertise in their area of business enables leaders to see patterns that others do not and to see them more quickly. By relegating some processes to the subconscious which can handle more variables more quickly, with less energy

Changing attitudes

Studies have shown that leaders are, on the whole, less stressed and have lower levels of the (stress) hormone cortisol, than others within the organisation we now know that it is possible, with practice, to improve the way we build resilience to stress – a key leadership characteristic. Gradual exposure, over time, to increasingly stressful situations, in ‘supportive’ cultures which avoid fear and blame - for example, where mistakes are taken as an opportunity to learn and are not for punishment, this helps develop confidence and resilience to stress.

So what can help someone acquire and then sustain, desired attributes and behaviours?
Several factors need to be in place for a brain to achieve sustainable change. The first is self awareness: you have to be aware that you need or want to change and have a clear goal.

Secondly you need focused attention. Our brain is a competitive environment in which different parts compete for resources. Attention appears to be the mechanism by which these resources are focused on a particular activity or mental task (and by extension, taken away from other areas). In order for the brain to forge new connections it needs to consciously focus on the task in hand.

The third factor is practice or repetition. Forming a new network of multiple connections (or mental map) is not enough, as a new connection is fragile. For it to remain usable it needs to be used frequently until it is well established. Use it or lose it is indeed a critical principle. Re-using a set of connections as a result of learning a new skill like driving a car, not only improves that skill but gradually changes the location of that ‘map’ in the brain so that it needs less conscious attention and hence fewer resources and effort to accomplish.  The difference between being an experienced driver on a well known route and a novice is one we all recognise.

When other people, such as therapists, coaches, line managers, mentors or champions are involved in the change process, the most significant factor is the creation of a good relationship. Difficult to define, as it will be different for everyone, a good relationship implies trust, safety, attunement, reliability and predictability. The significance of relationships for building brains has been demonstrated in studies of attachment between babies and their parents – and it appears to be crucial to changing brains too.