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The Neuroscience Behind Leadership And Emotional Courage

The blog was first published on BrainWaves for Leaders on April 3, 2014.

Chris Phillips is CEO of GreyMatta  and, Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership Alumni looks at the neuroscience behind leadership and why it takes emotional courage to lead well.

We know all the skills – we did the course, read the articles, and got the latest email. There’s nothing new about leadership – at least in theory.

Why is it, then, that we all talk about leadership like breakfast cereal but rarely do people demonstrate quality leadership? Why is it easier for us to recall the leadership flaws and failings than the inspirations? When discussing leadership with the participants of my Leadership Academy Future Leaders Program, a common response is, “I was taught what not to do!” And, while the answer is simple to identify, it’s complex in terms of how the brain affects the outcome.

Leadership requires emotional courage

Plato once said, “All learning has an emotional base”. He died in 347 BC, so we’ve known about the connection between emotion and leadership for a little while now! If emotion is as important as all that, we are in real leadership trouble – particularly those of us leaders who are male, because we are taught from an early age that emotions are bad and being emotional is worse.

A few years back, David Rock came up with the SCARF model to explain the basic areas the brain experiences motivation: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness.  If we consider that the brain has two primary stimuli being threat (risk) and reward, and we apply the SCARF Model to our actions and reactions, we start to understand the “why” behind our lack of emotional courage to lead.

The basic principles of threat and reward, of course, colour our interactions daily. We subconsciously move away from anything we consider to be detrimental to our overall well being, and we welcome what we perceive to be rewarding. Does this mean, then, that even if we are often highly skilled at the theories of leadership and can rattle off principles and core competencies with ease, we are not necessarily wired to put them into practice?

As individuals we have a series of radars that apply to perceptions of risk and reward with the radar changing regularly. Our radars are affected by all sorts of influences and can vary each and every hour; however, we do have a base measure that constitutes our ‘point of truth’.

Do we have the heart to lead?

Looking at the SCARF domains is instructive as a tool to show us the inherent problems with the courage to lead.

Let’s take a look at two of the areas of motivation: status and fairness. As a CEO, you may find that your radar regarding status is basically clear: you’ve achieved the status you were chasing for so long and your reward stimuli is satisfied. However, others around you may not feel the same in terms of their own ambitions, something that can colour your relationships and affect how you work together.  At the same time, with all the things that can affect your business, you may find your ‘fairness radar’ is buzzing, and the incoming missiles are not necessarily friendly fire. In fact, there are all kinds of fairness threats that can influence you and your business. It makes sense that your threat stimuli is heightened in this area, something that can blindside your balance.

When we have a heightened radar for parts of the SCARF model, our sliding scale of threat and reward is also skewed, which means our actions and attitude can be affected. Of course there are a number of other things in play, including our own biases, past experiences and memories that influence us.

As we gain self-awareness, we can start to manage our ability to lead and apply those core competencies we know are pivotal to leadership success.

To enable improvement in the leadership of our organisations, we look for reiteration of the good bits of leadership or exposure and forced rectification of the not so good bits. This takes courage, but it’s well worth the effort.

The 3600Feedback Example

3pfs13600feedback has been used traditionally to force an awareness of individual weaknesses in order to design a plan to improve behaviors. This, of course, is inconsistent with the idea of strengths-based leadership, identified by Tom Rath and Gallup. They claim there are three keys to being a more effective leader: knowing your strengths and investing in others’ strengths, getting people with the right strengths on your team, and understanding and meeting the four basic needs of those who look to you for leadership.

A 3600feedback format can trigger a considerable threat response and turn the radar on in a negative way for all elements of the SCARF model. If we believe Plato, this means we have little chance of learning, since the brain will make every effort to move away from the threat (in this case the threat is the negative connotations of being exposed for weaknesses).

According to Phil Dixon, David Rock, and Kevin Ochsner in an article they wrote for NeuroLeadership Journalentitled “Turn the 360 around”, this feedback format affects people in the following ways:

  • Statusis threatened because you are being questioned now even though you’ve used this same behavior to achieve success
  • Certaintyis threatened because there is now a question about what you have been doing all these years
  • Autonomy is threatened because your peers are publicly judging you
  • Relatedness is threatened because you perceive friends turning into foes as they comment on your performance
  • Fairnessis threatened as you think, Why should I be under the spotlight?

Unfortunately, when it comes to enabling people to use the competencies they have been shown, we sometimes use the very tools that narrow the brain due to the pressure it places on it. This, in turn, prevents us from embedding the thinking and transforming it into action.

From threat to reward

Real leadership means that we need to stand apart from all that is happening around us — in effect, we need to stand out from the crowd. That can be scary! No wonder many leaders appear to lack emotional courage and no wonder their leadership is floundering. We are often stuck in the ‘freeze phase’ of threat.

That is not to suggest that we should be elitist or egotistical — far from it  — we simply need to learn to be out of our comfort zones and love it. To have the heart to lead, to be able to have those ‘difficult conversations’, we need to turn leadership from threat to reward. Maybe leadership should be renamed “chocolate”!

As leaders ourselves, we must maximise the rewards that leadership brings. Read any leader’s bio and there will be a reference to enabling others to grow and be the best they can. This is an immense reward by itself but consider the exponential effect it has on an organisation and an organisation’s resilience.

Now is the right time to consider Pareto’s Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule, which, should serve as a daily reminder to focus 80 percent of your time and energy on the 20 percent of you work that is really important. Don’t just “work smart”, work smart on the right things. in order You can apply the principle however you like to accommodate the situation you are in, even saying 20% of your staff create 80% of your work but the principle is the same. It’s the 20% that is the most challenging yet, at the same time, the most rewarding.

Managers tend to aartworks-000037686520-8gs0zt-originalvoid the 20% that is important to getting results. The leaders who do invest in that 20% get unashamedly positive results. That 20% is people. This makes perfect sense –after all, if it wasn’t for people we wouldn’t have anything worth leading.

If we are to turn leadership back into the reward end of our continuum, we need to reinforce the positives in order to enable our brains to re-wire the behaviors. Our courage to lead, our emotional courage, cannot be built from a threat base, so it is time we re-thought our approach to building leadership.

Do we have the heart to lead? Maybe not, however, we do have the brain to change that!



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