Want great leadership? Rewire your leaders’ brain circuitry

The concept of born leaders is a myth and there are four essential steps that individuals usually take to become great leaders, according to an expert in leadership potential

The concept of born leaders is a myth and there are four essential steps that individuals usually take to become great leaders, according to an expert in leadership potential.

“There is no such thing as a born leader,” said Anthony Mitchell, chief potential officer of boutique management consultancy Bendelta.

“It is a myth. In fact, there is no such thing as a born high performer in any field.”

Mitchell gave the example of champion tennis player Roger Federer, and noted that one of the things that people say about him is how gracefully he moves.

“When Roger is in full flight, he looks like he’s gliding,” the former number one Jim Courier said.

“Almost like he’s floating above the court.”

Mitchell explained that footwork specialist David Bailey broke tennis footwork into 15 key movement types.

A solid pro performs seven contact moves at a high level, according to his research, and Federer is the only pro Bailey has ever studied who performs all 15 moves at a high level.

“Why does he have something that no other player, not even other number ones, have?” said Mitchell.

“It’s Federer’s background in other sports, including soccer, basketball and skiing, which he pursued until age 16, before focusing on tennis.

“It wasn’t something he was born with, despite how much people like to imagine things this way; it came from actions that he took.”

“Why does he have something that no other player, not even other number ones, have?”

Mitchell explained that exactly the same thing is true for leadership.

“When you ask the most impressive leaders (as agreed by others) if they were always great leaders, they all say no,” he said.

“They are able to describe the shortcomings they had when they started out and how they built much greater leadership skills over time.”

They most frequently cite taking steps such as the following:

  • Going through experiences for which they were not then fully equipped, taking them outside their comfort zone and usually resulting in some mistakes
  • Getting feedback (either from others or from the evidence staring them in the face) on where they had slipped
  • Recognising the opportunity for improvement and wanting to get better
  • Committing to improvement and diligently learning, testing and improving their approach

“Some will describe additional elements,” said Mitchell.

“Perhaps a mentor or coach who gave them good advice, or a role model on whom they modelled themselves.

“Perhaps a seminar, speaker or book with a message that stuck with them.”

These elements often vary, according to Mitchell, but what doesn’t vary is that they rewired the circuitry in their brain and that this changed their behaviour.

The opposite applies to mediocre leaders (even if they have been in leadership roles for a long time).

“They demonstrate limited self-awareness and struggle to cite experiences which enabled them to improve,” he said.

“There is a simple pair of phrases for this in what is known as Hebbian theory: ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ and ‘neurons that fire out of sync, fail to link’”

Twenty-five years ago, Mitchell said the model for understanding the brain was “hopelessly flawed”.

“To be fair, this was because we couldn’t really see what was going on inside the brain,” he said.

“Psychology textbooks had largely incorrect statements that the brain stopped developing in adulthood, that our dendrites then started undergoing ‘graceful degradation’ and that all we really did was rigidify and decline.”

While a little of that is true, he said much of this was shown to be wrong by neuroplasticity.

“The science of neuroplasticity comes from the fact that individual synaptic connections are constantly being removed or recreated, largely dependent upon the activity of the neurons that bear them,” he said.

“There is a simple pair of phrases for this in what is known as Hebbian theory: ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ and ‘neurons that fire out of sync, fail to link’”.

Neuroscientific research shows that experience changes both the brain’s physical structure (anatomy) and functional organisation (physiology).

“Pivotal experiences change our cortical organisation – in layman’s terms, this is the ‘map’ that we have for how to do something, whether that is to give a speech, coach an employee, design a strategy, and so on,” said Mitchell.

“These maps are absolutely able to change and this can happen very quickly if approached in the right way.”

For example, in one study, medical students’ brains were imaged during the period of studying for their exams.

In a matter of months, the students’ grey matter increased significantly in the posterior and lateral parietal cortex.

“Supported by technology that enables us to see what actually happens within a living brain, neuroplasticity shows us that the brain we have today is the result of the thoughts we had and the actions we took yesterday and all the yesterdays before that,” he said.

“Fewer than 30 per cent of companies understand which aspects of leadership are most critical for their success”

Over the past two years, Bendelta has researched the capabilities of the most successful people in the world, analysed more than 1000 academic articles and studied companies that have disrupted their ecosystems.

What resulted is a methodology (called “Potentiology”) that helps any leader develop world-class capabilities.

“What we discovered was that fewer than 30 per cent of companies understand which aspects of leadership are most critical for their success,” said Mitchell.

“Fewer than 10 per cent have proof to back up their beliefs. This alone is enough to inhibit the success of any organisation.”

Adding to it, however, is the fact that most development programs don’t work because there is little evidence that supports their effectiveness, according to Mitchell.

To compound the problem, he said organisations aren’t assessing whether the programs work at all.

“With the advent of machine learning and the embedding of artificial intelligence into every facet of the internet of things, organisations must change their focus to succeed,” said Mitchell.

“Understanding and developing 21st century leadership capabilities, along with better planning, discipline, long-term commitment and, most of all, a commitment to scientific method, will produce much greater results.”

“Neuroplasticity shows us that the brain we have today is the result of the thoughts we had and the actions we took yesterday and all the yesterdays before that”

Leaders who have improved their leadership the most have a number of points in common, according to Mitchell – chief of which are that their methods have been highly effective in rewiring the circuitry in their brain.

They’ve:

  • Taken more risks (usually in the form of trying things that stretch them beyond their current capability level)
  • Been more reflective and more open to improving their level of self-awareness
  • Been more willing to change their practices to more effective approaches
  • Been more disciplined and persistent in testing and improving their approach

“These leaders have often taken such steps through their own initiative,” he said.

“However, a company can assist all of their current and aspiring leaders to do the same.”

Working out which of the capabilities are most important for their most senior leaders is a good place to start, said Mitchell.

“Our research suggests that in the next decade, there’s a good chance you want to focus on one or more of the following 6 Cs, as Mitchell said:

  • Capacity: Develop resilience and access purpose to achieve in challenging conditions.
  • Connectedness: Use the power of empathy to lead individuals and teams, and enhance customer experience.
  • Creativity: Think non-linearly to generate new ideas and deliver innovation.
  • Collaboration: Fuse the power of multiple people and perspectives to produce exponential outcomes.
  • Choice: Apply scientific methods and behavioural insights for high-quality decisions.
  • Change agility: Identify inflection points, then adapt and swiftly execute.

“Once you know where you want to focus, it’s time to design interventions that can help people start to re-wire their brains,” said Mitchell.

“Ask yourself: is there something about how we are designed or how we work that stops programs from having full effect?”

There are a number of important implications in this for HR leaders, according to Mitchell, who said they first need to take a hard look at what evidence they have of whether their programs are working (or not).

“If they aren’t delivering enough improvement or if they simply can’t tell, there is a practical way forward,” he said.

Using the Potentiology-based approach, there are three key steps that companies can take to help individuals adopt the learning practices and mental pathways of great leaders:

1. Commit to excellence

  • Understand exactly what underpins your company’s business success
  • Translate that into the behaviours with the strongest causal link to success
  • Identify a small number of leadership capabilities that will make the biggest impact, not a laundry list that sets out every strength anyone could possibly possess
  • Focus on these capabilities in a truly laser-like fashion

2. Develop a pathway to world-class. This means designing interventions that assist people to:

  • Master the fundamentals that underpin any capability
  • Make their mental representation (their ‘map’) more accurate, complete and sophisticated

3. Use scientific methods and tools. The scientific method is to have hypotheses and to test these hypotheses dispassionately – retaining and amplifying what works and changing or abandoning what doesn’t. This requires data, feedback and measurement tools.

“These three steps will work, as long as you take one other step (ideally doing this first),” said Mitchell.

“Make sure the organisation is the kind of place where development can flourish.

“Ask yourself: is there something about how we are designed or how we work that stops programs from having a full effect?

“Are there factors that cause our best people to perform below their potential? If so, I’d strongly recommend addressing those issues too,” he said.

Taking these steps can really improve leadership capability, Mitchell added.

“It will put you far ahead of most companies today in terms of not only your methods but also the development you’ll achieve and the impact of this on improving your business results,” he said.

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