When a leader is self-aware, it gives others a feeling of safety even in uncertain environments. It makes it easier for employees to focus on their work, which leads to improved performance. The same principle is evident in other groups of mammals, where a skilled pack leader keeps members at peace so they can perform their functions. A self-aware leader modulates his or her behavior to alleviate organizational stress and creates an environment in which motivation and creativity flourish. One great advantage of neuroscience is that it provides hard data to vouch for the efficacy and value of so-called soft skills. It also shows the danger of being a hard-charging leader whose best efforts to move people along also set up a threat response that puts others on guard.
Similarly, many leaders try to repress their emotions in order to enhance their leadership presence, but this only confuses people and undermines morale. Experiments by Kevin Ochsner and James Gross show that when someone tries not to let other people see what he or she is feeling, the other party tends to experience a threat response. That’s why being spontaneous is key to creating an authentic leadership presence. This approach is likely to minimize status threats, increase certainty, and create a sense of relatedness and fairness.
Finally, the SCARF model helps explain why intelligence, in itself, isn’t sufficient for a good leader. Matthew Lieberman’s research suggests that high intelligence often corresponds with low self-awareness. The neural networks involved in information holding, planning, and cognitive problem solving reside in the lateral, or outer, portions of the brain, whereas the middle regions support self-awareness, social skills, and empathy. These regions are inversely correlated. As Lieberman notes, “If you spend a lot of time in cognitive tasks, your ability to have empathy for people is reduced simply because that part of your circuitry doesn’t get much use.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing leaders of business or government is to create the kind of atmosphere that promotes status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. When historians look back, their judgment of this period in time may rise or fall on how organizations, and society as a whole, operated. Did they treat people fairly, draw people together to solve problems, promote entrepreneurship and autonomy, foster certainty wherever possible, and find ways to raise the perceived status of everyone? If so, the brains of the future will salute them.
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- David Rock is the founding president of the NeuroLeadership Institute. He is also the CEO of Results Coaching Systems, which helps global organizations grow their leadership teams, using brain research as a base for self-awareness and social awareness. He is the author of Your Brain at Work (HarperBusiness, 2009) and Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work (Collins, 2006).