The Neuroscience of Leadership

While we are increasingly bombarded by our devices and our ability to pay attention is declining, extensive research on leadership shows a crisis of engagement in the workforce. Leaders are not satisfying their employees’ needs to find engagement and happiness in what they do, yet many executive salaries continue to rise. When you have a leader who is not self-aware, you have a recipe for disaster.

Our society is sorely lacking compassion, especially in leadership roles where it is of critical importance. While command and control may have worked once upon a time, it certainly doesn’t work anymore. Leaders need to consider this change in the world and the change in expectations. Today we live on the edge of uncertainty. It is at the edge of uncertainty where our most creative inspiration comes alive. So, what are the qualities that leaders need to have in the 21st century to really create a productive and happy workforce? Research conducted over 2-years by the Potential Project concluded the simple short answer is that leaders need to be mindful, leaders need to be selfless, and leaders need to have compassion.


Mindfulness is essential because our ability to pay attention and to be focussed on the task in front of us is declining rapidly. We’re constantly ‘on’ with our devices, causing extreme distraction and information overload. The ability to pay attention to the people that you are with equals the output you will have from that meeting and the output other people will also have. If you are not engaged or present in those meetings, people will know that you don’t really care because you’re not paying attention. So, mindfulness has a lot to say about our effectiveness and our ability as leaders to engage staff in a way that they feel we pay attention to them.


Selflessness is an interesting quality and researchers were surprised it scored so high in their studies. Selflessness is about not leading for your own gain; it’s about leading for the bigger impact – the longer term. It’s about seeing the bigger picture rather than being driven by your own egocentric desires. The reason why it is so important is that if you, as a leader, have a huge ego, you are vulnerable for criticism and highly susceptible to being manipulated. Your huge ego means you have a strong confirmation bias, which means you only see what you want to see and hear what you want to hear – based on what your ego wants to hear. A massive ego also means you end up in a “CEO bubble” where you’re basically isolated from the rest of the world because you are only listening to what you trust and what others think you want to hear. You’re not really in contact with your clients, you’re not in contact with the culture of your organisation or with your people.

Studies are finding that when we step into a position of leadership, and we gain power, we are praised more, others see us as something special, and it goes to our head. The power of leadership directly impacts our brain. Recent studies show that when we come into a position of power, Mirror Neurons, the neurons in the brain associated with empathy, are gradually switched off. Therefore, one of the most important jobs for leaders is to keep the ego in check. Leadership is not about allowing our ego to drive behaviour for our own gain. Leadership is for the gain of the people and the organisation we lead.


Compassion is the intention to want to be of benefit to others. A few years ago compassion would have been a weird word to bring into the concept of leadership. An assessment of 35,000 leaders found that 96% confirmed that compassion is extremely important for their leadership. However, as above, when stepping into positions of power, the ability to really empathise with people is often lost. A CEO of a large well-known brewery stated that when he stepped into the role, he was well known for being very empathetic. During his 15-years as CEO, he observed his own loss of empathy. He no longer had the same ability to recognise how people felt, both at work and at home.

There is a difference between empathy and compassion. Compassion is the layer of action that comes after empathy. Compassion happens when we move away from empathy into action orientation and we try to solve the problem by coaching or mentoring, by delegating the work to others, or by taking on the work for ourselves, if needed. Compassion is an action, whereas empathy has the risk of being a burnout for us.

“With the rise of social media, the level of empathy among the kids has diminished greatly, and if this continues due to our indifference, then I’m afraid, we’ll be giving rise to a planet full of sociopaths.”
― Abhijit Naskar

Mirror Neurons

What do we do when a baby smiles? Most, if not all of us, can’t help but feel good and smile back. What do we do when a baby has been fed, had a nappy change, a decent nap, and we have tried everything to soothe the baby, but the baby won’t stop crying? We feel frustrated, and most likely many of the same sorts of feelings that the baby is expressing. That’s because our brains have little computers in them called Mirror Neurons. Since their discovery in the 1990s, Mirror Neurons have been changing the way we think about how we think. We now have scientific proof that no one can MAKE you feel anything. You make yourself feel your feelings by the meaning you give to events and interactions.

What do we do when we interact? We use our body to communicate our intentions and our feelings. The gestures, facial expressions, and body postures we make are social signals – ways of communicating with one another. Mirror Neurons are the only brain cells we know of that are specialised to code the actions of other people as well as our own actions. They are essential brain cells for social interactions. Without them, we would be blind to the actions, intentions and emotions of other people.

The way Mirror Neurons let us understand others is by providing some kind of inner imitation of the actions of other people, which in turn leads us to “simulate” the intentions and emotions associated with those actions. When we see someone smiling, our Mirror Neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. We don’t need to make any inference on what the person is feeling, we experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what they are experiencing. This is why it’s so important to surround yourself with quality people if you want to be successful in life.

“Most people stand in the same place until it becomes dangerous to stay there. Then they act.
Exceptional people act today to write their story.”
― Jim Lawless

Top-Down and Bottom-Up Processing

Bottom-up processing refers to the notion that perception, (how we interpret incoming sensory data such as visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic input) informs and influences our decision-making, emotional experience, and behaviour. An example of bottom-up processing might be stepping off a curb, suddenly hearing a horn and seeing a car driving towards you – causing you to reflexively jump back onto the curb. Thank goodness our brain can process 20 million billion bits of data per second!

Top-down processing is the idea that conceptual data, (internal visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic representations, in the form of memories) already encoded in the neural circuitry of our higher-level cognitive/thinking brain, influences our decision-making, emotional experience, and behaviour. An example of top-down processing would be the ability to walk from your bed to the bathroom at night-time in the dark. You have a visual, spatial representation, or cognitive map, of your house in your mind’s eye. It is that internal representation that allows you to navigate the terrain without visual sight.

So, bottom-up processing says that perception directs cognition. Top-down processing says that perception is constructed by cognition. Fortunately, it’s not either or – it’s both! Your supercomputer brain is easily capable of both forms of processing. However, since babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers have comparatively few internal representations (cognitive maps) they spend most, if not all, of their time in bottom-up mode while adults spend the vast majority of their time in top-down mode because they have a huge library of cognitive maps created and refined by years of life experience.

“The New Sexy: You need emotional intelligence to understand another person. Kindness and empathy make you a complete person. Reading makes you have a great vocabulary. And those who have struggled in life know the value of life.”
― Avijeet Das

Understanding Emotional Co-Regulation

Because of Mirror Neurons, children are typically in bottom-up mode interacting with adult caregivers who are or should be, in top-down mode. This is the ideal arrangement, although not always. The action and reaction of Mirror Neurons are responsible for learning through emulation and imitation. Co-regulation is the term used for these interactions between parent and child. Without regular interaction with someone to imitate, learning would not take place. Scientists believe a child would eventually die from a lack of input and stimulation.

Morris Massey calls the first seven years of life the imprint period.  According to Massey, in this period a child’s brain is like a sponge. Every emotionally significant thing a child experiences tends to go straight into their subconscious mind. This makes most of the learning during this period subconscious, hence the term ‘imprint’. It matters not whether the imprinted emotional material was positively or negatively charged. Mirrors simply reflect, they don’t judge or evaluate. It’s not the positive or negative charge, it’s the intensity or repetition of the event that determines the initial strength of the imprint.

Prior to birth, we are almost symbiotic with our mother, eating what she eats, and feeling what she feels. The rest of childhood is about separation. The first major separation comes at birth. Doctors even cut the cord making it a complete physical separation so there are now two distinct people. However, emotionally mother and child remain somewhat enmeshed. This is the healthy form of enmeshment that helps a new mum remain attuned to the baby’s needs.

The second major separation, the emotional birth, comes at around 18-months. It’s often referred to as the terrible two’s. The “boo-boo lip” is not quite as effective anymore, so the temper tantrums begin. The angry/defiant aspect of our personality finds its voice, and it says NO! In reality, the real era of the angry child is yet to come in adolescence.

“Emotional literacy is a prerequisite for empathy and psychological resilience.”
― Gina Senarighi

Co-regulation of emotions is important because, as children, we lack the internal mechanisms to regulate our own emotions and soothe ourselves. This is why cooing, rocking, cuddles, and lullabies are so important. The more of these we receive, the more emotionally enmeshed we are with our primary caregivers. Co-regulation refers to the fact that, as babies, we depend TOTALLY on our caretakers to detect, evaluate, and meet our physical, emotional, and psychological needs. By the time we are ready to leave home, we must be able to regulate these needs on our own.

As we grow older, we gradually need less and less co-regulation. Toddlers venture further away from mum, but still need to turn around and look to make sure she’s still nearby. Pre-schoolers spend more and more time playing by themselves or with others, but still need supervision. School-aged kids leave home and go out into the world to practice more independence and opportunities to learn self-regulation. Adolescence is all about breaking the emotional apron strings, which can be a painful thing. The harder parents try to hold on to control, the more the teenager will need to rebel. It is the major task of the teen to break the emotional and physical bonds with parents so they can become fully-functioning, adult human beings.

“Your emotional state affects the way you think and thus the choices you make.”
― Claudia Velandia

The Problem with Mirror Neurons

Co-regulation provides the input children need to develop proper coping skills. Without regular, attentive, and consistent co-regulation children must work out their own set of survival skills. In a less-than-nurturing family, regular, attentive, and consistent co-regulation is not always available. Sometimes it is hardly available at all, and in many families, it is inconsistently available at best. When problems with co-regulation exist in parent-child relationships, there is trouble in paradise. Mirror Neurons are at the root of many problems, such as:

Poor Attachment Styles

Chronic Stress

Mood Disorders

Low Self-Esteem

Poor Self-Care

Victim Mentality

Toxic Relationships

Adult/Child Syndrome

Complex PTSD

Abandonment Issues

Unmet Childhood Dependency Needs

“Blaming others for your unhappiness is a habit that’s hard to give up because it triggers some happy chemicals. You feel important when you battle perceived injustice (serotonin), and you bond with others who feel similarly deprived (oxytocin). You get excited when you seek and find evidence that you have been denied your fair share of happiness (dopamine). You may even trigger endorphins by welcoming physical pain into your life as evidence of your deprivation. You keep building a circuit for seeking happiness by feeling wronged.”
― Loretta Graziano Breuning

We Are One

Mirror Neuron studies are beginning to reveal subtle new truths about what makes a good leader. The salient revelation is that certain things leaders do (specifically, exhibit empathy and become attuned to others’ moods) literally affect both their own brain chemistry and that of their followers. Researchers have found that the leader-follower dynamic is not a case of two (or more) independent brains reacting consciously or unconsciously to each other. Rather, the individual minds become, in a sense, fused into a single system.

Great leaders are those whose behaviour powerfully leverages the system of brain interconnectedness. Great leaders are positioned on the opposite end of the neural continuum from people with serious social disorders, characterised by underdevelopment in the areas of the brain associated with social interactions. It follows that a potent way of becoming a better leader is to find authentic contexts in which to learn the kinds of social behaviours that reinforce the brain’s social circuitry. Leading effectively is, in other words, less about mastering situations, or even mastering social skillsets, than it is about developing a genuine interest in and talent for fostering positive feelings in the people whose cooperation and support you need.

The notion that effective leadership is about having powerful social circuits in the brain has prompted industry leaders to extend the concept of emotional intelligence (grounded in theories of individual psychology) to a more relationship-based social intelligence. Social Intelligence is a set of interpersonal competencies built on specific neural networks (and related endocrine systems) that inspire others to be effective.

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
― Brené Brown

Neuroplastic Fantastic

The good news is that, due to the neuroplasticity of the brain, the qualities of mindfulness, selflessness and compassion can be taught. Our brain is changing constantly, depending on how we use it. For every moment that we pay attention, and we are present with others, our brain is rewiring and making itself a more present, more attentive, more focused brain. Every time we do something that is selfless, our brain is rewiring for selflessness to be our default behaviour, and it’s the same with compassion.

When leaders display and nurture these qualities, a different culture begins to arise in the organisation. In a culture where people are more attentive to each other, people are more generally attentive in meetings, which means the meetings are shorter and more effective. People become more aware of how they send emails and communicate generally. A culture of stronger presence, with a stronger sense of focus on the right priorities, develops when organisations start to adopt these practices.

“Taking in the good is not about putting a happy shiny face on everything, nor is it about turning away from the hard things in life. It’s about nourishing well-being, contentment, and peace inside that are refuges you can always come from and return to.”
― Rick Hanson

Crisis of Engagement

Earlier this year the World Economic Forum listed the top 10 leadership skills thought to be the most important in 2020. Most of them involve good management of emotions and human relationships. There’s an urgent need to improve leadership skills for the future because we’re facing a crisis that has nothing to do with the pandemic. The crisis we are seeing in the global workforce today is a crisis of engagement. Recent Gallup studies found that only 13% of the global workforce is actively engaged in their work, so they really do a great job. However, 24% is actively disengaged. That’s almost a quarter!

Imagine an organisation is like a canoe. 13 people in the front are rowing in one direction, the right direction. 24 people are up the back, and they are rowing in the direct opposite direction. In the middle, there’s a big group who are probably not rowing very hard at all. This means there’s a monumental engagement crisis, and this engagement crisis is the direct result of a leadership crisis.

Leaders today are generally not doing a great job in motivating their people. A study on 250,000 leaders, asked them how well they engaged their people, and 82% of them said they were doing a great job. However, when they asked their employees, 77% said that they were, in fact, not doing a great job. It was also found that 65% of employees would forego a pay rise to see their leader fired.

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

—Max DePree

The Rise of Phoenix Leaders

It is clear the need is urgent. So many things are changing. With the acceleration into artificial intelligence, many jobs will become obsolete in the years to come. People will need to be managed in a different way as more of the ordinary or structured-type roles are performed by AI. The way we do things has also changed. People are searching for meaningful work, and they are prepared to go somewhere else to find it. Human connection is one of the main contributing factors to well-being. Today’s workforce is vastly different from what it was in the past. And it’s changing at a rapid rate! Leaders have to manage multiple generations of workers, often with conflicting values, needs, and interests. They need to do this by developing the three most important qualities a leader needs to help solve this crisis.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”

—John Quincy Adams


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