What is Leadership? - IEDP
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Braingain: What is Leadership?

The answer has to come from an experimental science

Wednesday 28 May 2014


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Two pieces arriving in the in-box on the same day prompt an increasingly important question. What is leadership ? And if that question is ever going to be answered, what would have to be done?

The answer has to come from an experimental science, otherwise it can only ever be a matter of opinion. Science creates the possibility of debate that can lead to agreement rather than just assertion.

The ethnographer Simon Sinek published a book at the end of 2013 called Leaders Eat Last: why some teams pull together and others don’t . (see http://vimeo.com/79899786). He argues that the central task of a leader, at whatever level in the organisation, is to create a place of safety.

He arrives at this observation from a consideration of the four main neurochemicals that, he says, are there to get us to act in our own interest: and that our own interest relies especially upon being a participating member of a group.

The pain-suppressing endorphins combined with the goal-focusing dopamine are the chemicals of selfishness, making us work to get what we want, he says. Serotonin (for happiness, pride and status) and oxytocin (the addiction inhibitor and immune-system booster) manage the goal-directing pressures to turn us into social animals. It’s this combination, he says, that gave us the evolutionary advantage that we have over all other mammals.

Well, maybe. The evolutionary record doesn’t really tell us what chemicals developed when. So there is a lot of inferential justification for a hypothesis about the task of the boss being able to make others safe that begs its own questions.

Does the fact that humans are the only animals that learnt to kill at a distance and use weapons in doing so fill the ‘safe’ space? As human beings we are so extraordinarily dimorphic– male and female are very different in their biological and physical characteristics. And now we know for sure that male and female brains operate in many ways quite differently and depend upon different chemical mixes for effective functioning, how do we build that knowledge into an understanding of leadership?

In a recent blog posting on the IEDP LinkedIn Group readers’ attention was drawn to a piece on the Business Networking Community for Professionals and Entrepreneurs 4BN (see: 4bn.co.uk/community/articles/the-4-secrets-of-leadership). It says that leaders have to have unbounded optimism, rock solid confidence, integrity and decisiveness. Well, that’s all useful stuff. But why this list rather than any other?

If we start from an applied neuroscience perspective, perhaps the capacity to trust oneself and so generate trust in others might be a starting point. It is the key single element in getting others’ brains to perform sustainably at their best. The qualities that a limbic leader – a leader of either sex who is in touch with his or her own integrating capacity to feel and think and express both and regulate both appropriately - needs to have are the capacity to:

  • Connect
  • Be courageous
  • Be clever enough
  • Walk own talk
  • Inspire others into action
  • Be worth following

In the first five the individual trusts themself. In the sixth, they are trusted. That’s what leadership is essentially about – even if, as between men and women, the actual behaviours might look different the underlying processes are the same.

Leadership is not really about competencies. It is about a state of inner being in the core of the person expressed in thousands of different ways. Do not bother too much about measuring its elements. Experience them. If you are a leader, let others experience you. Leadership is like love – it’s known through the encounter, not by asking ‘how much?’


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