Why leaders need brain awareness

A Leader's brain in his most powerful leadership tool

This past week was International brain awareness week. Many leaders coast through life on automatic pilot and never stop to become aware on how they can optimize the power of their brains tp be better leaders.  

Do great leaders have distinctive brains? Yes, says David A. Waldman, a management professor at Arizona State University. Since 2005, Waldman and his colleagues have been studying the neurological patterns of successful entrepreneurs and senior managers in an attempt to learn what they have in common.

The test they administer is fairly simple. Nineteen electrodes are placed on each participant's scalp. Participants are then asked a few questions, mostly about their vision for their companies. Their brain activity is also monitored when they are at rest. With help from a neuroscientist and a qEEG machine, Waldman maps out the brain's electrical activity in both speaking and resting states.

It turns out that the brains of effective leaders exhibit similar electrical patterns. Subjects rated "inspirational" by their employees generate high levels of coherence in the right frontal part of the brain. That's the region which is responsible for interpersonal communication and social relationships. It's the region where language and interpersonal capabilities such as empathy, co-operation and strategizing happens.

If you bear with me, I will explain why learning about neuropsychology is important for you as a leader.

Engagement and empathy are the most important elements for effective leadership

Leaders can produce threat states and transmit signals that elicit fear. Or they can create calm working places for maximum engagement and productivity. This is one reason why leaders are so influential in setting the tone of a business culture. It explains how a manager transmits a positive or negative atmosphere – and why team members often go to such lengths to avoid change.  

Empathy can have an ‘unfreezing effect’ – transforming the ‘frozen state’ of threat-avoidance into creativity and trust-building behaviors – such as knowledge-sharing or the spontaneous admission of mistakes. Empathic attitudes and behaviors can yield unprecedented results in one-to-one relationships and stimulate high performance in individuals, teams and organizations.

For a relationship to work well, we must be open to trusting, rather than being in a stress or fear state. Here is the science behind this. The existence of mirror neurons in the hippocampus area of the limbic (emotional) system of the brain are key for trust building.

Imaging studies have shown that the brain regions thought to contain mirror neurons are active not only when a person performs an action but also when he or she observes another person doing so. Mirror neurons may also be similarly involved in empathy.  At an unconscious level, we are in constant dialogue and attunement with everyone with whom we interact, gaining some understanding of how they feel. 

For a leader to come across as genuinely interested, you need several key behaviors:

  1. A socially-appropriate level of eye contact. 
  2. A style and level of listening that attempts to understand the other person, rather than interrupting with a smart question or even an anecdote of your own on the topic.  
  3. Using visuals and metaphors that resonates with what you pick up from your interlocutor.

When two people interact in this way, an ‘emotional resonance loop’ develops between two brains, resulting in more trust and influence. This happens on several neurochemical levels, creating a very interesting brain "cocktail":

  • Your brain starts to release dopamine in its reward areas – dopamine is associated with getting something we want;
  • Opioids also are released, associated with getting something we like.
  • Meanwhile, serotonin release is associated with being in a good mood.
  • And oxytocin is in the air when trust is growing and when we are falling in love. A hormone secreted by the hypothalamus that induces a calm, warm mood, oxytocin increases tender feelings and attachment, and may lead us to lower our guard. Oxytocin is perhaps the hormone most fundamental to being interesting/empathic.
  • Noradrenaline intensifies the effects of all of the above and is involved in attention and concentration. 
  • In this scenario, levels of cortisol (stress) should be low.  

Evidence from research into inter-personal neurobiology suggests that the empathic attitude of ‘being interested’ is to feel curiosity, a desire to know, and is a manifestation of the surprise/startle emotion combined with excitement and trust.

Thus, the brain is all about inter-connectedness.  In a phrase, how to be an engaging leader would be to be aware of and able to regulate the impact of your brain on that of another. It is about providing enough, but not too much, novelty, challenge and choice in order to engage and motivate.

Remember. . .

An understanding of empathy – towards yourself, others, or your organization – serves to help people fulfill their potential, passion and purpose.  You can begin to explore –  through personal reflection or with an executive or peer coach or mentor –  how you collaborate, how you role-model, and ultimately, how you can lead in creating genuinely cohesive organizations.


If you want to know more about your brain, Brain PathWays™ is the system you need to discover and leverage your unique brain strengths. Follow your brain pathways on a journey of self-discovery and insights. Learn how new science helps to blend neuroscientific knowledge with leadership development, team management, and coaching. If your and your team takes this short validated test, you will better understand the interaction between your brains.