Brain-based Leadership – the smart way to lead

Leadership can feel pretty hit and miss.

Sometimes it ‘works’ and sometimes it doesn’t, and whilst it has been the topic of thousands of studies, it is still widely acknowledged as one of the least understood areas of modern business practice. As Warren Bennis so wisely said, ‘Probably more has been written and less is known about leadership than any other topic in the behavioural sciences.’

So what if there was a more scientific way to understand how to bring out the best in others?

“What we are coming to understand is that there’s a lot of information that’s not available to our own consciousness in terms of what we’re thinking and feeling, and the processes that are driving our behavior,” explained Michael Platt, Director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative when I interviewed him recently. “And so the tools of neuroscience, the insights, the knowledge that we’re gaining can help us to get a better grasp on human behavior and human nature.”

In my work with leaders I often see them focus on the task side of their roles and responsibilities – the ‘mechanics’, rather than the relational side – the ‘dynamics’. The problem is, this doesn’t match the way our brains are wired.

“Our brains are wired to connect” explained Michael “We actually have a social brain network that manages our connection with others, so if we can dial into that we can improve the relationships between ourselves and the people we lead.”

What this means for accountability

And this is important for leaders, because it can help us better navigate ‘high-stakes’ conversations such as those around accountability or giving and receiving feedback.

The brain sees these conversations as a ‘social occasion’ and therefore it looks for cues that the situation is safe. For these conversations to go well, it’s important leaders are honest, engaged, genuine and sincere. Our brains can pick up even the smallest indication that the person we’re talking with isn’t interested in what we’re saying, so authenticity is crucial. By being mindful to genuinely listen, leaders can ensure the conversation is as effective as possible.

Here are some other ways that Michael suggested we can lead with the brain in mind:

  • Intentionally focus on the positive – The information you pay attention to gets privileged access to the decision-making parts of the brain. So as a leader, you can help your people focus on the positive by deliberately crafting your communication. Doing so will support their wellbeing and performance as their brains make more optimistic predictions about the world and help them to make decisions that encourage moving forward rather than being based on fear, which encourages retreat. (This directly relates to the ‘Build the Positive’ principle of my book Becoming AntiFragile.)
  • Flex your leadership style – Whilst it can be challenging for your sense of control and certainty to ‘let go’, taking a more ‘invite-and-inquire’ approach will reap benefits for you and your team. Providing your people with greater autonomy has been shown to increase engagement and boost motivation. Are there ways you can increase their freedom of choice so they will be more motivated to participate? (This is a foundational aspect of AntiFragile Leadership)
  • Combat ‘Zoom fatigue’ – Working remotely has seen many people staring at the computer screen for months to interact with their workmates and this makes processing social cues even harder for the brain. While this isn’t ideal, you can make sure you have the basics right to allow for the best connection with your team possible. Do you have your camera set up so you look directly at it? Are you able to put away any distractions, including emails, chat pop-ups and your phone? Are there little ways you can let people know via zoom that you’re paying attention – perhaps a short message after the meeting, or circle back in, in your next email? While these actions won’t compensate for the loss of in-person cues, they can go a long way to helping you remain connected to your colleagues during a time of physical distancing. (Managing mental and emotional energy for connection and performance are two elements of AntiFragile Energy.)

You can listen to my full interview with Michael here and to find out how to reduce fragility by using two critical factors to improve accountability, access my latest e-book – The Accountability Reset here

Dr Paige Williams

Dr Paige Williams

International Speaker, Author, Mentor


Determined to help leaders move beyond just the need for resilience, Paige provides practical, evidence-based strategies for leaders to become antifragile, lead themselves and their teams to thrive and succeed in the Decade of Disruption.

Recent Posts

Free Resources