It’s the Election Stupid! - IEDP
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It’s the Election Stupid!

What neuroscience tells us about the U.S. election

Thursday 05 May 2016


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BRAINGAIN: Two months ago Brain Gain made the prediction, using social neurochemistry as its starting point, that Donald Trump would become the next President of America. Within two months he has confounded his media critics, has cleared the field of other contenders, and looks set to achieve the Republican nomination if the Republican Party plays straight with such an outsider. He will then have a straight run at a Presidential fight with a still-to-be-decided Democratic contender, though probably Hillary Clinton.

Keeping track of such events, this month’s Brain Gain sets out the 6 characteristics that seem central to any leadership function, suggests a quick rating for each one, and compares Trump D. and Clinton H. on the scales.

But first of all, where do the six elements come from?

They define the Limbic Leader. That takes us into a very brief diversion about the brain so that these six elements have a context.

The most useful current working model of the brain suggests that there are three main parts to it that have developed through evolution. Together they form the ‘tripartite’ or ‘triune’ brain.

The first is the oldest part, and it sits on the top of the spinal column and is buried in the underside of the brain towards the back of the head.  It is popularly called the snake brain. It is responsible for keeping all the mechanisms of the body working.  Its functions are only noticed when they go wrong. When they do it is usually serious.

The second part of the brain to develop happened at around the time the dinosaurs were dying out and mammals started appearing. Not only do mammals have live young but those young need care. So a part of the brain started to develop that could manage emotions and memory and link event and emotion together. It is called the limbic system and is often referred to as the mammalian brain.

Then a third part of the brain started to develop, very recently in evolutionary time, becoming in humans the convoluted, wrinkled structure that we normally think of when imagining a brain. It is the neo-cortex or cognitive brain. It attaches language to experience that has been attached to emotion and manages everything that integrates what happens in the brain in making conscious thought and directing intention.

However it is the emotions that are the source of energy within the brain and the basis of all motivated behaviour.  So the way that, throughout life, experience has got attached to emotion (and the composites of the emotions that we call feelings) is what controls behaviour. Because emotions are managed in the limbic system then it is axiomatic that the behaviours a leader displays are limbic in origin, hence the concept of the limbic leader.

The six characteristics below arose through an extended mind-mapping exercise some seven years ago when preparing an annual lecture for the Royal College of Defence Studies on the neuroscience of leadership.  Needing, for the sake of clarity, to integrate everything that was in one’s head about everything concerning leadership that could be called into consciousness, five groupings emerged.  They described the capacity to:


                 Be courageous

                     Be clever enough

                         Walk own talk

                              Inspire others into action

Then what became apparent was that they all had a single emotion underpinning them.  Trust is the energiser of them all.  That then produces the sixth quality, which is that the leader:

                                          Is trusted

So how do Trump D. and Clinton H. rate, on a scale of 1-10 where 10 is high?   

Connect is the capacity to establish an engaged relationship with others:  DT 8  /  HC  5

Be courageous:  DT 8  /  HC 4

Be clever enough:  DT 7 / HC 7

Walk own talk:  DT 9 / HC 4

Inspire others into action:  DT 8 / HC 5

Be trusted: DT 4 / HC 2

Totals:  DT 44  /  HC 27

The ‘Be trusted’ score is a paradox. D. Trump is certainly courageous, but a feature of his particular form of courage might also be recklessness. He is clearly ‘clever enough, but is he ‘too clever’? So there is not a straight-line relationship between the individual’s capacity to trust themself and the qualities that generates trust in others.

Take any other leadership scale that you favour, and try scoring each of these candidates on it.  See which one you find yourself backing for being leader of what still might be, at the end of a first term, the most powerful nation in the world but might not be by the end of a second term.


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