The Neuroscience Of Effective Leadership

Your grandma really did have some great advice. Science proves what she knew all along about the positive habits of good leaders.

The Neuroscience Of Effective Leadership
[Image: Flickr user Harald Hoyer]

What do you get when you cross your grandmother’s advice with the latest research in neuroscience?


According to Eric J. McNulty, this unlikely intersection holds the key to being a good leader. As the director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, McNulty is often asked to recommend the latest and greatest reads on leadership. What he’s discovered is that books on brain science serve up sage insights more often than the traditional title penned from the corner office. He’s also observed that scientific research on the brain reveals what his grandma knew all along.

Don’t Be Quick to Judge

Our brains play a simple trick on us all the time: we like to surround ourselves with people who think like we do. The validation we seek is called confirmation bias and it can sabotage anything from making a new friend to rejecting a candidate for a job based on what sports team they put in their Twitter bio.

An effective leader will keep the book open rather than judge by its cover. That strategy comes through in subtle ways such as asking off-beat questions during job interviews to treating creativity as a team sport and allow themselves to receive ideas from anyone on the staff, no matter what the title.


Take Winning and Losing in Stride

Whether you’re attempting to claw your way up the career ladder or already ensconced in the corner office, it always helps to see the big picture.

“According to research cited by Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, you actually get better outcomes for decisions you face repeatedly when you approach them as a portfolio rather than individually,” McNulty writes.

Indeed some of the most successful social entrepreneurs view their failures as an essential part of their journey towards achieving their goals. Unreasonable Institute’s Daniel Epstein says, “Failure is a weird word. I don’t see it as failure. I see it as a natural evolution of a solution to a problem.”

Take a Breather


Sometimes it helps to hit the reset button. The American Medical Association says that stress is the underlying cause of 60% of illness and disease. A simple pause to reflect and recharge in the middle of a hectic day can boost brain power so you’re more likely to retain new ideas and won’t feel overwhelmed when the inbox continues to overflow.

You don’t need to lose an afternoon to contemplate the origins of the universe, either. A five-minute meditation can be all the encouragement your prefrontal cortex needs to shift into its smart state.

Walk It Off

Speaking of shifting focus, nothing seems to trump a walk outside, no matter what the weather. Research shows that stepping quite literally, out of the box of an office, does wonders to clear the mind and spark creativity. But don’t take our word for it. Nilofer Merchant, “Jane Bond of Innovation” and a most productive leader is a huge proponent of strolling. Especially for meetings.


Flip a Coin

Sometimes, our smarts get in the way of decision making. Add a deluge of big data and it’s a wonder everyone isn’t a waffler. So when you’re wading through the pros and cons, it may help to flip a coin. McNulty cites David Eagleman’s Incognito which has nothing to do with luck of landing heads or tails. Instead, a wise leader pays attention to their gut reaction after the toss.

By attending to the physical sensations at the result of the toss, the body is fast-tracking decision-making to the brain. Did Tails make your stomach churn? That’s just neuroscience telling you to trust your intuition.

It’s Nice to Be Important, But Important to Be Nice

Ask any middle school student and they’ll tell you: social exclusion feels like you’ve been punched. Now science backs that up with what goes on in the brain when people feel like they’ve been ignored at work. That’s because we humans tend to view work as a social system, not just a place to draw a paycheck.


Managers who get high marks for engaging their teams tend to toss competition out with the recycling and focus instead on giving and getting honest feedback. They also provide opportunities for growth and encourage inclusive cultures that let ideas trump seniority.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.