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August | 2011


Courageous Leadership

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Courageous Leadership

You May Have to be a Little Nuts to be a Leader

Its been over 60 years since Roger Sperry first discovered that the two hemispheres of the brain process information differently and people in education and related fields have been intrigued by brain research ever since. The metaphor of two brains is referenced to explain everything from gender differences to creativity to leadership. While neuroscientists probably shiver in their socks when they hear these simplistic applications this kind of brain research provides valuable metaphors that help us understand our world.

I came across a couple of studies recently that seem relevant to our understanding of how leaders develop and how they can improve on their leadership styles. The first is based on the recent book The Compass of Pleasure by neuroscientist David Linden who writes about a complex of nerves in the brain known as the medial forebrain pleasure circuit. This pleasure center is non-discriminatory and will evoke good feelings for everything from fatty foods to exercise to drugs and alcohol and successful personal accomplishments. In his work, Linden describes how addictive substances stimulate this pleasure center and that it contributes to addicts continuing in their destructive ways. But what gets the addict usually started on this path is a set of behaviors he described as the "holy trinity" of novelty seeking, risk-taking and compulsivity. Linden mentions that the psychological profiles of many great visionary leaders such as Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Larry Ellison (Oracle) have that same type of profile but (hopefully) without the additive behaviors. And while Linden’s research is limited to this area of visionary and entrepreneurial leaders, it does make me think about leaders who are work-a-holics and who find a great deal of satisfaction and perhaps even addictive pleasure from working long hours. Leadership brings its own set of challenges and Linden's work is one of the few that discusses how the leadership is affected by the brain. I'm sure there will be more in the future.

Shawn Achor in his book, The Happiness Advantage uses research related to positive psychology in describing how leaders and business people can improve their effectiveness at work. He makes the case that while most people think that they will be happy when they are successful, his work demonstrates that the reverse is true — people who are happy are more successful. According to Achor, the brain performs better when it is in a positive mindset. Mental agility, resiliency, ability to multitask are all improved when the brain is operating from a "can-do" rather than a "can’t do" mentality. He reports on a research study he conducted at KPMG where he used an experimental and control group design with managers in that organization. Both groups were provided with a survey that looked at 14 different measures including stress levels, social supports and optimism. His intervention was a 3-hour training program on "positive psychology". When he returned several months later to retest the managers, the group of trained managers showed higher levels of workplace productivity and life satisfaction.

So, what are the applications of these brain findings to leadership?

  • If you are in an organization and are a leader in a stable organization, possessing the triad traits of novelty seeking, risk-taking and compulsivity will probably not serve you well. However, if entrepreneurship is called for, look for a leader who possesses some these traits and let them do their thing.
  • The principles of positive psychology can also be used to improve and strengthen leadership skills. Instead of waiting for your happiness, create enjoyment in the work you are doing as a leader. As a result, you and your team may find greater success.
  • Another finding from scientific research is how important friendships are to achieving success at work. The Gallup organization reported that people who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged and that close friendships at work boost satisfaction by 50%.

The other day, I was headed off to a meeting when I walked by the street level office of a former coaching client. I waved at him and he waved me in. I pointed to my watch, indicating I was pressed for time but he persisted. When I came around the building and entered his office he greeted me with a warm smile and big handshake. "You always have a minute to say hi to a friend," he said. We chatted for a few minutes about work and family and shared a few laughs and some quick stories. As I walked off to my scheduled appointments, I realized I had a little more spring in my step. It took just a few minutes to the two of us to connect, and my brain was feeling good about it.


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TED Talks

Richard St. John was on his way to the TED conference when a girl on the plane asked him, "What really leads to success?" Five hundred interviews later, he identifies the 8 keys to success. And one of them has to do with you being a "work-a-frolic"!



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Attend our Free Teleconference on Resilience!

Its not to late to sign up for my bi-coastal teleconference this Wednesday with Dan Weedin.

Dan and I will be discussing Stress and Business Resiliency.

This teleconference will focus on how individuals, teams and organizations can build a culture of resiliency that improves how these groups manage challenging situations at work and home.

To register for this free teleconference, please click here


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