Many still believe that leadership is something that is unattainable and that the learning of certain traits, behaviours or attitudes cannot be done, however, this belief cannot be further from the truth, according to a neuro-leadership expert.
When it comes to leadership development, one of the questions that still gets tossed around is “Are leaders born or made?” said Silvia Damiano, author of Leadership is Upside Down.
“As our brain changes throughout life, our attitudes and behaviours can also change and these include ‘leadership behaviours’. Having said this, it is also true that some people are born with innate leadership abilities, in the same way that others are born with an amazing musical gift.
“Nonetheless, this doesn’t prevent people who are born without these leadership abilities from growing into someone who can lead a project team, start a business or be an inspiration to others by leading a charity campaign.”
In these examples, she said that those who are willing to have a go and not shy away from leadership may realise that they can influence people and achieve an outcome if they are willing to learn and polish the skills they need to do this successfully.
David Waldman, a management professor at Arizona State University, has been investigating if leaders have distinctive brains. Using a QEEG machine, Waldman was able to map out the electrical activity of the brains of senior managers and successful entrepreneurs rated as “inspirational” by their employees.
Part of his conclusion was that these leaders showed higher levels of coherence in the right frontal part of the brain – the area that provides us with the social skills we need to interact well with others.
“The good news is that we can teach our brains to improve these levels of coherence,” said Damiano, who also serves as adjunct director of neuro-learning programs at MGSM Executive Education and CEO of About my Brain Institute.
Leadership development shortcomings
There seems to be a lot of opinions, perspectives and even confusion when people refer to leadership development, and Damiano said the online revolution has created a belief that we can sit at a computer and learn everything we need.
“Even though technology is part of our lives now and very useful, the reality is that leadership is about people, about influencing others. You need to provide an experience rather than just expecting someone will download content and learn everything they need to know about the topic,” she said.
Damiano, who uses a combination of methodologies which range from video analysis, case studies, assessments, discussions and hands-on activities in her programs, said a good leadership program needs to provide a “true” head-brain/heart and gut experience for people to remember this as a memorable event, rewire the brains and start changing some of the behaviours and habits that may not be serving them well.
“A good leadership program is a combination of listening, doing, experiencing, reflecting, discussing and even an opportunity in teaching others. It is only when you teach or coach others that you learn the most, so these elements have to be built in a solid program which is more effective when is longer than just a workshop,” she said.
“Leadership development takes time and it does not happen in a two hour session, like many expect. I always say to my clients, that as children we are sent to school because it is the right thing to do and because our parents expect us to learn and successfully graduate.
“Learning to be leaders, changing our behaviours and developing the skills required in order to be successful is no different. It takes dedication, investment and time. Those who do not understand these simple principles will always struggle thinking that perhaps leadership is not a worthwhile investment.
“My answer to this is straightforward. If you think investing in your leaders is not worth it, try doing the opposite and you soon end up with a disengaged and unproductive workforce.”
Improving leadership and self-awareness
Levels of self-awareness among organisations’ leaders seem to be “pretty low” in general, and in many cases, it is also low at the top, said Damiano.
“One of the most limiting factors, I would say, is the type of beliefs that some leaders have, when it comes to developing the talent in their organisations and in this, I include self-awareness as a critical skill to have,” she said.
“You have two types of CEOs or senior leaders. The ones that believe that development is important and money should be invested in training people, not only as a way to enhance their potential but as a mechanism to engage and retain talent.
“The other group are those who only focus on maximising efficiencies, increasing revenue and simply do not see education or development as part of this equation. In my opinion, this is a very short-sighted, self-centred and restricted view.”
Damiano drew an analogy between this and when building a house, a solid foundation will make it strong and long-lasting. However, failure to do so will expose a house to all sorts of problems.
“People’s levels of self-awareness, to me, are the foundations of a good organisation,” she said.
“People who lack self-awareness, relate very poorly to others, cannot manage conflict well and display behaviours that limit team outcomes. They are not admired or respected and they are generally poor influencers.”
(For more on the benefits of high self-awareness, see our article on how self-awareness can generate increased returns for shareholders.)
3 key steps to leadership development
With the increasing body of knowledge emerging from the neuroscience field, it is almost unavoidable to recommend that anyone’s best starting point when it comes to leadership development is getting to know their brains better, she said.
“I got my own brain scanned in America to become acquainted with some of my reactions and learn the strategies I could put into place to increase my self -awareness even further,” according to Damiano, who said there is always something else we can learn about ourselves and improve.
The second best step to take is to reflect on who we are, what happens to us on a daily basis, our achievements and exploring how we can best awaken our leadership abilities is an important endeavour.
“In my experience, people rarely take the time to reflect on a daily basis and jot down what issues happened during the day, how they were solved, what else could have been done,” she said.
“The most successful CEOs I know, seemed to spend time doing this. Reflection is certainly something I would recommend to most people when it comes to unlocking leadership qualities.”
The third step in good leadership development is learning to seek feedback from others – not only people at work, but also from friends and family members.
“How we see the world and how we interpret what happens to us is always subjective so making the time to compare our views with the perception of others is a very useful exercise to gain perspective and reframe some of the thoughts we have,” said Damiano.
“Having worked with feedback tools for a number of years, I have found that most people receive their biggest insights when they do a 360 assessment. This can certainly accelerate anyone’s development.
“Establishing the practice of finishing a team meeting or a 1:1 session and asking the people around for their input and listening to it – in a non-defensive way – can also help develop a more rounded view of what we do and it makes us grow as people and leaders.
“What I find fascinating is that most people do not do this as a regular practice.”
How HR leaders can become better leaders
In order to earn respect and assist others in a business, HR professionals need to focus on their own leadership development and consulting capabilities just as much as they focus on helping others, said Damiano.
Over the past few decades, HR professionals have been asked to spend most of their time setting up processes and providing advice when problems arise, rather than developing their own leadership and consulting capabilities, she said.
“Throughout my career, I have met very few ‘great’ HR people who seemed to have these skills,” she said.
“They were people who knew how to listen, what questions to ask and understand their clients’ priorities. In return they got the respect and were highly valued by the business leaders they supported. They were true leaders themselves.”
The best thing a HR practitioner can do is to embrace their own leadership so they can role model the right behaviours and attitudes, said Damiano.
“Leadership cannot only be taught in words. It has to be demonstrated by our actions, our ways of solving difficult situations and by the decisions we make every day,” she said.
“Managers are already busy doing their own thing, so in my experience, they want less processes and some kind of mechanism to easily learn the basics of good leadership.”