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Inside the Leader’s Brain

Wharton professor Michael Platt reveals how neuroscience can transform leadership and team performance

 

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It is clear, in principle, that insights from neuroscience and our increasing understanding of how the brain works can help business leaders and the teams they lead perform more effectively. A raft of research over recent years shows this. However, in the reality of the high-pressured workplace, grasping and applying these insights can be elusive.

In his new book The Leader's BrainProfessor Michael Platt, Director, of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative at The Wharton School, offers to “move neuroscience out of the lab and into the hands of people so they can unlock its full potential at work and in their daily lives.” At a modest 150 pages, this authoritative book is admirably sensitive to executive time pressure and, opening with a description of how stressed-out monkeys recover from a devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico, it gets straight to the core message―the importance of the social brain.

One of the brain’s key functions is to identify and make sense of the behaviour of other humans. Regions of the brain are specifically used to process sensory information about the appearance, behaviour, and intentions of other humans. From this comes our ability to develop social connections and networks. Taken into a leadership context the social brain lies behind five essential leadership capabilities: The abilities to connect and communicate with a diverse range of people; to build effective teams; to inspire innovation; to make better group decisions; and to drive team performance.

Platt explores the neurological basis of these five essential capabilities in the book’s five central chapters, providing accessible evidence-based knowledge, which he links to practical actions that leaders can take to improve their effectiveness. He relates this to another key lesson from neuroscience―the plasticity of the brain―the fact that even into later adult years the human brain is able to keep learning and adapting. In fact, he says, the social brain is like a muscle―the more it is exercised the stronger it becomes.

As well as monkeys, C. elegans roundworms also get a mention. This is in the area of ‘creativity’―typically seen as something just a few individuals are luckily born with―but where again development is very possible. Here Platt explains the brain processes behind our innate ability to explore and innovate, and how our creative abilities can be strengthened―innovation of course being essential to organizational survival in difficult times.

In our age of rapid technological change and organizational complexity the leader’s role is already highly pressured. Now amidst the massive uncertainty and economic turmoil, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, where workforces, if not furloughed, are likely to be working from home or otherwise disrupted, stress is a major concern both for leaders and their teams. Platt quotes the shocking statistic that US companies spend $300 billion annually on health costs, absenteeism, and poor performance that result from workplace stress―this presumably even before the Covid crisis.

Today, more than ever, there is an urgent need for leaders to develop abilities to cope and thrive in disrupted difficult times and for organizations to invest in initiatives to support them. Professor Platt’s new book highlights how insights gained from neuroscience can help. “The good news,” as he encouragingly says “ is that those abilities can be developed.” His belief that “Neuroscience can help illuminate this new, enlightened path forward,” is entirely convincing. This is a belief he also brings to The Neuroscience of Business: Innovations in Leadership and Strategic Decisions―the executive program he directs at Wharton Executive Education.

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‘The Leader’s Brain: Enhance Your Leadership, Build Stronger Teams, Make Better Decisions, and Inspire Greater Innovation with Neuroscience’. By Michael L. Platt. Published by the Wharton School Press, 2021. ISBN 978-1-61363-098-0


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