Neuroleadership – September 22, 2008

By the time you read this the hoopla of the Singapore Office opening will be a thing of the past, the only remainder will be the void in brain cells of the Geyer people who attended. I am describing a situation that will occur in a few days time, when this hits your in box; the situation right now is a bit different, the event is yet to occur. It may come as a surprise to some of you, but these events always make me a bit nervous. I fear that inevitable point in conversations with people you have just met, where all goes quiet. After you talk about how great Geyer is and what we do and what we care about and who we work with, you hit that awkward stage when you realize that you have nothing more to say.

I am sure I am not the only one who fears this and that is why I am going to help you out and share a tip for making it through these types of events. My advise is to survive, you must prepare yourself with cocktail party buzz words. Of course you will want these to have some relevance to the event or people attending. You won’t get very far if you are using a phrase like ‘2N redundancy’ with textile manufacturers or dropping the term ‘double rubs’ with mission critical engineers. Some people would say all you need to do to make it through a networking event is to read the paper, but I think that we can all agree the news of late: Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Sarah Palin would more likely make you want to put your head in the oven, rather than kick back and party.

One of the issues with buzz words is that they are always changing, what is a hot one year wont be hot the next. As always, my goal with these articles is to help you, and that is why I am going to save you all the reading and just tell you what the business buzzword of 08 is. With this word at your disposal, you will have the ability to rock up to any corporate event and when that awkward pause in conversation arrives, you can pull out this word like a secret weapon. Please note I said work related, if you try to use this to get a date it will most likely have the opposite effect.

The word is NEUROLEADERSHIP and it is one of the hottest business crazes today.
What is it? neuroleadership proponents believe that by understanding how the brain functions, a leader can better deal with the daily challenges of running a business. They believe that if we want a new behaviour, we need to give ourselves a new mental map and over time it will become embedded in our brain.

Of course, like most new ideas neuroleadership has its critics who say it is nothing more than a repackaging exercise of past leadership trends, in particular Daniel Golemans’s ‘ emotional intelligence’. Academics like Warren Bennis from the University of Southern California have concern for “people being taken in by the language of it and ending up with the stuff we’ve known all along”. It’s a valid point I suppose, but underneath such statements I am sure there is some degree of professional jealousy. They’re just sorry they didn’t think of it, because it is making some people a lot of money.

Face it, do you really care if a trend has happened once already, does it make it less popular or relevant? I am looking out the window of my hotel (you will learn how critical this is to my thought process later) and there is a big ferris wheel smack dab in the centre of Singapore, it is like the one in London and the one in Melbourne and one at Darling Harbour, except that one is an embarrassing little runt. Does the fact that this was something invented in 1893 by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. for the Worlds Columbian Exhibition in Chicago mean people are not going to ride the thing today? Does the fact that I wore clothing in the 8th grade that looks nauseatingly similar to today’s fashions keep any of you from buying clothes?

The reality is, that despite what the naysayers think, to some people neuroleadership is the next best thing since sliced bread. Chris Blake the regional general manager, people and organizational development at NAB is so excited about this he says “In my view this is the most important innovation in leadership in the last decade.” He is not alone, Siobhan McHale who heads the cultural transformation team at ANZ is also a fan of neuroleadership and so is Daniel Byrnes, a consultant and lecturer in leadership and change management at Australian School of Business. At the moment business leaders are so into this, that there are whole conferences dedicated to the topic, including a major Australian conference being planned for next year.

Of course there are some that are not as enthusiastic. One reasons is that initiatives that are designed to change leader’s behaviour get ignored when the commercial pressures of running the business begin to bear down. Another reason for a luke warm response is that many have seen this all before, hence the criticism of repackaging old ideas. Catherine Fox of AFR described this skepticism beautifully in her article It’s all in the Mind. “No matter how many times you observe the phenomenon there’s something intriguing about the metamorphosis of a new management trend. From relative obscurity or an unrelated field of expertise an idea is plucked, packaged and pitched to a business audience, buoyed by some media hype.”

Again, do you really care? A trend is a trend and who in their right mind would not take advantage of riding on the fast train, even if it won’t be in service next year? Certainaly not David Rock, he is the guy that thought up neuroleadership. Rock is not a scientist, nor does he have an MBA, Rock is an organizational coach and for those of you who think this is another goofey American thing, you can wipe the smug look off your faces, because Rock is an Aussie. Rock coined the phrase neuroleadership as the nexus between the science of the brain and business management. He believes that by understanding how the brain functions, people can be better leaders.

Dr Evian Gordon who established the Brain Dynamic Centre at Westmead Hospital and now the leader of Brain Resource Company believes the interaction of neuroscience and business has come at the right time because companies are worried about maintaining market position in an economic downturn. He says “There is a very real serious look at how to better effect behavioural change in the workplace and the reason is because of the massive economic cost of stress and massive economic cost of absenteeism and the massive upside of productivity, resilience and motivation”. Reading between the lines, leaders are scared and they will try any kind of snake oil they can find to not follow Lehman, Merrill or AIG on a clockwise spin down the toilet, which would be counter clockwise in the Southern hemisphere.

Neuroscientests have been researching this with the goal of discovering what happens in your brain when you come up with a great idea or insight. They have found that the brain’s power is limited when it comes to complex cognitive tasks What this means, is we are not wired to constantly come up with great ideas. In fact, our capacity to do difficult thinking for most people, is only a few minutes a day. So think about it, you work for 8 to 10 hours a day at Geyer, and of that eight hours you put in, only a scant few minutes will deliver what we consider to be the life blood of the company – innovative insight!

Having great ideas, those Aha moments, or brilliant insight is tricky business. We know this because Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognative neuroscientist at Northwestern University has spent the past fifteen years studying what happens inside your brain when you have an insight. To isolate the brain activity that defined the insight process he developed a set of verbal puzzles which he named Compound Remote Associate Problems or CRAP for short (really I am not making this up) Jung – Beeman had people solve the puzzles and used MRI and EEG technology to construct a precise map of the process of insight or innovation. What they found, is that people who solved puzzles with insight, activated a specific subset of areas of the brain.

The first areas of activity during problem solving are in the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulated cortex. scientists refer to this as the ‘preparatory phase’ where the sensory areas of the brain, the visual cortex, go silent to suppress distraction. This allows you to you to focus by blocking out other things the same way you might close your eyes when you try to think.

The brain then goes into the “search phase” where it begins looking for answers in relevant places. Your brain can get frustrated at this phase and it is up to what Jung – Breeman calls the executive-control area to keep on searching, devise new strategies or search somewhere else. It is during this phase, where you might have an Aha moment. Your Aha will come with a burst of brain activity. If you were on an EEG it would register a spike of gamma rhythm, the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain. Gamma rhythm is thought to come from the ‘binding of neurons’ as cells distributed across the cortex draw together.

How do they draw together you ask? The scientist realized that a small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere of your brain, the anterior superior temporal gyrus, was unusually active before an insight, this was demonstrated by an intense surge of electricity, leading to a rush of blood. They think that neurons use the fold of tissue as a bridge to close the gap between parts of your brain, allowing the right hemisphere of your brain to collect information from other parts.

So in order for you to have a great thought, your brain needs to work together and let the neurons flow. You are going to be so surprised to learn, that in order to do this, the cortex needs to relax or it will be unable to go looking for information from the other parts of the brain that you need for insight. This is why so many insights happen in the shower, your relaxed. So right about now you are probably thinking, I need a neuroscientist to tell me this? I’ve known that since I was five. Just wait it gets better!

From all of this science, we now know that it is important to concentrate, but we also need to let the mind wander or relax. If your mind is in a clenched state, you suppress the very type of brain activity that leads to insight. Making people focus on details, as opposed to big picture, can significantly disrupt the insight process. Now for the final, utterly profound, advise from Jung – Beeman “If you’re in an environment that forces you to produce and produce, and you feel very stressed, then you’re not going to have any insights” Geeze give me a break, I am no PHD and I could have told you that.

Back to the beginning. Guys like David Rock, the organizational coach, are linking elements of brain function to business leadership and they have come up with the following insight for why some management practices work and others don’t. These insights are as follows:
1. Since complex problem solving and creativity is done in the prefrontal cortex, which we now know can only work for a few minutes, you must give it a break. Rock suggests one way is to write things down rather than trying to remember them. He suggest we allocate time for deep thinking that is free from distractions and finally, give your brain a break by doing mundane tasks.
2. Protect the amygdale of your people, that is the part of the brain that makes people act impulsively and incites the fight or flight response. In other words, good managers must avoid upsetting people.
3. Switch off the conscious thought processes that lock us into one path and allow unconscious processing to take over. So let your mind ramble. Concentration, it seems comes with the hidden cost of diminishing creativity.
4. Free up the prefrontal cortex by engaging your basal ganglia, that is the part of your brain were routines and habits are stored. Let the basal ganglia take care of things that are repeated routines, so you don’t have to think about them.
5. Observe your own thoughts, meditate to get more control over what you do and say.

Here is a little side note on meditation. You might be interested to know that the Dalai Lama was invited to address the Society for Neuroscience’s annual conference. Not everyone thought it was appropriate for ‘His Holiness’ to do this, some saw it as a political ploy to lend scientific legitimacy to Buddhism and press the Chinese government to give Tibet a break. Others questioned the breach in the barrier between science and religion.
The reason they invited him was that when scientists asked monks to meditate on ‘unconditional loving- kindness and compassion they noticed powerful gamma activity in their brains. The gamma waves were 30 times stronger than students asked to do the same. These results implied to some scientist, that there was the ability to change brain function through training, which gets us back to David Rock.

I don’t think that anyone in their right mind would dispute the value of making lists or being nice to people to get the most out of them. Most of us can agree that we don’t work well when pressured and who would argue that staring out the window to gather ones thoughts is a negative? Whether you consider this as science being hyped as explanation or an exciting new approach to leadership, one thing is certain. You’re going to be hearing a lot more about neuroscience. My prediction is that if we don’t see David Rock on Oprah in the next six months it will because someone has come up with another fad and trumped him.
Maybe it will be me.


Fox, Catherine “It’s all in the Mind”. Australian Financial Review, 09 November 2008

Geirland, John. “Buddha on the Brain” Wired, issue 14.02

Greengard, Samuel. “Head Start” Wired, issue 5.02 – Feb 1997

Katayama, Lisa. “I Was a Neuroscience Guinea Pig: How Scientists Scrambled My Brain” Wired November 26, 2007

Lehrer, Jonah. “The Eureka Hunt – Why do good ideas come to us when they do?” The New Yorker, July 28, 2008

Nixon, Sherrill. “How to Mend a Blocked Brain – New Ideas Transform the Way we Operate in the Workplace” The Sydney Morning Herald, July 12 – 13 2008

Rock, David. “A Brain – Based Approach to Coaching – based on an interview with Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. International Journal of Coaching in Organisations, 2006


One thought on “Neuroleadership – September 22, 2008”

  1. Hello i am kavin, iits my first time to commebting anywhere, wen i read this paragraph i tnought i could als create commment ddue tto this
    brilliant post.

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