The Neuroscience Behind Leadership

Leadership and leader skills – we hear these terms in every job interview and description. You might think that leadership questions are relevant only for managers but that’s not true. Most companies are looking for people with leadership potential even, for entry-level positions. In particular, small businesses and startups – they need leaders more than any other business to create and motivate a team in a hectic environment.

The biggest confusion remains with the term ‘leadership’ – what exactly does leader mean and what skills should a leader have? If we delve deeper into the term ‘leader’ we will discover that it covers much more than just a ‘personality trait’.  The newest findings in neuroscience help us to understand how the brain works and how it can help control mental processes in order to become a better leader. We’ve teamed up with Claire James, the Managing Director of Pivotal Moment Transitions who talked us through internal mechanisms of a leader from the neuroscientific point of view. Below you’ll find an overview concerning the subjects of good and bad leadership and what you can do to take your own leadership skills to the next level. You will also gain an insight into why great leadership skills are some of the most sought after in every facet of modern business.

1) How would you define a great leader?

It’s a funny old thing, whilst there is considerable and often common consensus on what makes a bad leader, there’s usually less agreement on what makes a good one.  This may be because each of us has our own individual style of leadership; each with strengths and weaknesses and areas for personal development.  Therefore, some contexts and organisational structures or cultures may suit one type of individual leader, whilst others do not.

However, there appears to be some personality types which are currently over-represented at leadership level than they are in the general population.  For example, Oxford University Press – UK specialists in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®), a psychometric assessment based on the theories of renowned psychologist Carl Jung – contains some interesting data on the subject.

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Their research shows that if you tend to make decisions based on logic, rather than values or feelings (what’s known as a ‘Thinking’, rather than a ‘Feeling’ preference), and are more planful than emergent in how you like to organise yourself and the world around you (known as a ‘Judging’ rather than a ‘Perceiving’ preference), then you will find a larger proportion of people with these same preferences in management roles, than is representative of the population in general.

This may well be the legacy of a command and control style of leadership, combined with the tendency for leaders to recruit in their own image. It will be interesting to see how this changes as fresh generations come through the ranks.  ‘Millennials’, for example, appear to be much more interested in the concept of ‘purpose’ in their jobs than purely money or status. They are also less likely to accept dysfunctional behaviour by a manager or leader which a 1970’s youth may have seen as par for the course.

2) Why do companies need leaders?

Interestingly, there are already new breeds of organisational structures emerging which do not appear to need leaders in the traditionally recognised sense. Power in varying degrees (whether in relation to strategy and vision, or more basic decisions; such as sundry purchases) is distributed throughout the organisation.

These organisations operate without the requirement of a central control system. Instead, individual cells (individuals and teams) flex, transform and grow in response to the context in which they find themselves; constantly adapting in small, incremental ways to find the best route to surviving and thriving.  In fact, this is also how ‘neuroplasticity’ – or changes in the brain’s wiring – works. For more on this and how some of the world’s most successful organisations are choosing this approach take a look at the work of Frederic Laloux and his book ‘Reinventing Organisations’.

3)  Do you believe that some people are ‘born leaders’, or is leadership a trait which can be taught or learned?

I believe (and neuroscience would also suggest), that the answer is a combination of both; and then some!  We know that whilst some behaviours are strongly affected by inherited genetics and neural patterns created through our upbringing, we can also learn to adapt and to ‘upskill’ through awareness and a willingness to ‘take a chance’, putting new approaches into practice.

Again, context is important. There will always be some who are more comfortable taking the lead in certain situations than others. What I think is most critical is that people be given the leeway to lead in a manner which feels ‘right’ for them and who they are; whilst staying authentic, or true to themselves.

neuroscience behind the leadership

In my own career I have known leaders with vastly different styles who have managed to be equally effective at inspiring those around them to attain their highest level of performance. I believe that leaders who are most effective are those who find their own individual style, and who are also open to others finding their own style, however different that may be.

Neuroscience demonstrates that for any kind of personal growth and learning, awareness of patterns is key. That’s why, at Pivotal Moment, when we are working with leaders. We use psychometric assessments like the MBTI®, the Enneagram, or the Hogan ‘Bright Side’, ‘Dark Side’ and ‘Inside’. These all get to the heart of neurological and behavioural patterns that are inherited or that have developed through our early life experiences, enabling us to identify where they show up and how they serve us or get in the way. We can then use awareness to focus on new ways of being and doing as leaders.

At Pivotal Moment, we specialise in harnessing the ways in which the brain most easily makes sustainable change. We include in our portfolio of leadership coaching programmes, the Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching for guaranteed and measurable leadership growth. Marshall Goldsmith has been recognised multiple times as the world’s No 1 Coach and has been acknowledged as the World’s No 1 Leadership Thinker by Harvard Business Review. His coaching system taps into the power of stakeholder support to assist a leader in growing in 1 to 2 key leadership areas over the course of a year to 18 months. This process has developed hundreds of the world’s top leaders across 5 continents. It comes with a ‘No growth, no fee’ guarantee.

4) Do you think it’s harder to be a female leader of the company and how can that be changed? (A lot of women working in tech’ and startup companies are still finding it very difficult to be taken seriously)

Again, the MBTI® research shows that many more women report a preference for ‘Feeling’, rather than ‘Thinking’; 76% v 24%.  In men, they found a split of 56% ‘Thinking’, 44% ‘Feeling’. Given what we noted earlier about those with a preference for ‘Thinking’ being over-represented at management level, and people tending to recruit in their own ‘psychological image’, this may in part explain the difficulties that women experience in rising to the leadership level.

Other studies have shown that there is a significant confidence gap between men and women; men tend to overestimate their competence, and women to undervalue their knowledge and skills. A study in London in 2012 also identified that women are not sponsored by senior leadership in the same way as men. Men were found to be better at promoting themselves and their achievements and to at using networking and the power of a sponsor to climb the corporate ladder.

Women were found to play what’s termed ‘Secret Cinderella’, i.e. “If I do a great job, the prince will surely turn up on my doorstep and try my foot in the glass slipper of senior management!”. Sadly, in cultures where you are expected to self-promote and shout your wins from the rooftops, these ‘Cinder’s’ often remain invisible (and unheard) within the talent development, high potential processes.

This is a great shame when studies have shown that a single woman on a Board will bring measurable benefits to the business, whilst 3 create a critical mass that delivers a marked diversity bonus through more fundamental change in the way that the Board works.

In the light of this, Paul Brown, Professor of Applied Neuroscience at Monarch Business school, and colleagues, reflect that “This points to the need for women to stay true to their own values and styles of leadership, to be authentic. Trying to behave like a male leader will only work if that is a genuine expression of who you are”. (from ‘Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage’, Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm and Paul Brown). This ties in with my own experience of effective leadership being about finding your own unique style and living it.

It would seem, therefore, that women would benefit from: getting clear on their strengths, skills and achievements; getting comfortable talking about them; using the power of networks; and recruiting a sponsor in the organisation to actively support their promotion (in all senses of the word!).

5) How would you briefly sum up what we know about becoming a great leader?  

Whether you’re a man or a woman, leading others is something that all personality types can potentially do well. The key to honing your leadership skills is through: cultivating self-knowledge; awareness of your patterns and where they serve or get in the way; understanding how you impact others; and seeking regular feedback and feedforward from all those with whom you interact.  

You must also act consistently upon what you discover!

This takes courage, humility and discipline (and may be facilitated by the support of a great mentor and/or coach).  However, the evidence abounds that the rewards in terms of individual, organisational and societal growth are worth every moment of inner reflection, each brave glance in the ‘feedback mirror’, and all your tiny steps, or indeed, great leaps, towards your very best self…

And there’s more! We have a bonus test to find out how great of a leader you are. Just to give you a heads up, our Teamgate CEO Marijus has completed the test and got a “True leader” result. That’s something to be proud of! Try it out yourself and let us know your results in the comments.

About the author:

claire james Claire James is Managing Director of Pivotal Moment Transitions and a developer of leaders and organisations using the power of applied neuroscience.

Pivotal Moment works UK-wide and internationally to help create audaciously successful leaders in organisations where people love to work.

For a complimentary, 45-minute leadership strategy session with Claire, please contact her by phone on 0203 239 1334 or by email at [email protected].


Abe Dearmer

Abe has a vast experience running multiple SaaS companies and is an expert on all things Sales, Marketing and SEO.

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