Leadership: Lessons from Star Trek and Neuroscience

Posted on: June 20, 2012

Two recent but very different articles on leadership attracted my attention.

Star Trek

Forbes published “Five leadership lessons from James T Kirk” in May http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2012/03/05/five-leadership-lessons-from-james-t-kirk/. It’s a neat way to get across some key messages – with evidence from the Enterprise’s caption:

  1. Never stop learning
    • Be a “walking stack of books”
    • the more knowledge you have, the more creative you can be
    • the more you are able to do, the more solutions you have at your disposal
  2. Have advisers with different world views
    • Weak leaders surround themselves with “Yes” (wo)men who are afraid to argue
    • Avoid GroupThink
  3. Be part of the away team
    • With boots on the ground, you can make quick assessments
    • Don’t forget what life is like on the front line
  4. Play poker, not chess
    • Life is a game of probabilities, not defined rules
    • Understanding your opponents is a greater advantage than the cards in your hand
  5. Blow up the enterprise
    • Whilst driven by passions, we must accept that the reality is that times change and sometimes we must destroy what it is we love most
    • Change what isn’t working and embark on a new path

I think there is great resonance with some of the things that are going on in the professions right now – managing partners need to learn about the new environment, seek advice from those outside the partnership, get closer to the markets and clients, accept that the rules are changing and face the fact that they may have to explore completely different business models if they are to thrive in the future.

Neuroscience

Huffington Post published an article from David Rock on “The neuroscience of leadership” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-rock/leadership_b_1312201.html

  • Still your mind
    • Studies of insight by Mark Beeman and others suggest that you get better insights when you’re able to notice “weak activations” or “quiet” signals in the brain. This requires you to quiet the overall activation of the brain, which requires minimizing anxiety (which is why we have better ideas when we feel happy)
  • Train yourself with strong emotional events
    • Stress affects performance and studies by Matt Lieberman show that the brain has just one main “braking system” for mental, physical and emotional activity. The bad news is this system has limited capacity. The good news is this system appears to be quite trainable, which explains why many leadership programs involve people “surviving” strong emotional events (which reduce the processing power for deliberate thinking). Our intuitive strategies for regulating emotions (not talking about them) do exactly the opposite of what we intend, leaving us less capable of dealing with the world adaptively.
  • Take care with feedback
    • Research by Naomi Eisenberger has shown that the brain treats social pain much like physical pain. Giving positive feedback can activate reward centres the same or more than financial windfalls. There appear to be five social rewards and threats that are deeply important to the brain: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. People experience feedback as an attack on their “status,” which to the brain is perceived like a physical attack.
  • Watch your non verbal signals
    • We’re not as rational as we thought. Studies by Alexander Pentland show that people are dramatically more influenced by non-verbal signals than we realized. The biological signals exhibited by leaders are highly efficient messengers. Pentland has been able to measure the effectiveness of leaders without knowing what they say, and even predict a leader’s success at certain tasks, the “holy grail” of leadership.

I’ve often observed the somewhat “macho” dominant style in many professional firms – and sensed the preference for rationality and hard evidence over the perceived “softer” issues relating to one’s own and others’ emotions. Perhaps the scientific evidence may persuade some leaders to pay more importance to the importance of emotional intelligence.

Please note that I am running another of the popular “Managing Change and Leadership” half day courses in early July. Further details here: http://pmforum.co.uk/training/index.aspx

 

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