A New Approach to Executive Leadership: What Science can teach us


In my quest to facilitate executive leaders to navigate the labyrinth that is the global economy, I have learned a lot about human nature. We are overwhelmed by the enormous amount of information on “Leadership” being pumped out every week. Business leaders all want to share their success stories with us, and why not? They make a buck or two, and we become privy to trade “secrets”. By all means, go out and buy their books on winning strategies and habits… get inspired! But at the end of the day, why try to imitate someone or something that’s already happened? Business is moving so fast that by the time we’ve mastered an existing process or practise it’s already too late. We should instead be focusing on the human experience. New ways of thinking and operating and looking at people in organisations is changing. When we move away from looking at the organisation as a machine, and people as just cogs in that machine, we find the same concepts cropping up in the extant business literature and practise that continue to stand the test of time. These are Emotional Intelligence, Trust, Cooperation and Competition. And there is an evolutionary and neurological reason for this.

Neuroscience“Rewiring” your Organisation

It is a fact that our brains have physically and neurologically evolved. With advances in fMRI, neuroscientists have proven brain “plasticity”. Neuroplasticity is the ability to rewire, strengthen and grow our neural connections and pathways to adapt throughout our lives. Similarly, and as a consequence thereof, with the evolutionary rise of human maturity and consciousness, organisations are naturally compelled to “rewire”, or redesign themselves to reflect this evolution.

Almost 45% of employees surveyed suffer from work-related stress. The growing disillusionment of management practices means only one thing; it is up to you, as a leader, not to try to predict and control (by outdated and widely, long-accepted HR practices such as KPIs, yearly evaluations, targets and the like), but to sense and respond to your people.

In today’s complex and messy economy we cannot waste valuable time and resources on processes and practices at the expense of people. The pace and complexity of change urges executive leaders to loosen the reigns. Perhaps even do away with the reigns altogether.

This begs the question; how will you, as a leader, foster an environment that is conducive to a learning, resilient and agile culture?

  • Redesign your organisational structure in a way that will enable autonomy.
    By allowing your people to “self-manage”, you will essentially be enabling them to capture and utilize inter and extra organisational knowledge more efficiently and effectively.
  • Instead of using “reward and punish” models of leadership, create an environment where empathy and trust flourish.
    (It should not only enable, but value, Empathy, Trust, Cooperation and Open Competition) By understanding people’s basic emotions, and how emotions are our evolutionary tools to survival, you’ll understand that our emotions form the basis of the decisions we make.

An executive leader’s main function today should be doing exactly that, modelling and nurturing sets of values and beliefs that will allow people to thrive. Rapidly changing markets favour flexible management systems which enable people to act independently and process new information quickly. Chinese companies, unlikely as it may have seemed a few years ago, have already been designing new organisational structures see Haier, Midea, Wanxiang and Goodbaby. These are companies with humble beginnings (as is the case with most start-ups) but have risen to global player ranks because they have had leaders who “build alliances constantly, develop new products prolifically, and venture into unrelated businesses all the time.”

asia-97399The case for Neuroscience

Haier’s CEO Mr. Zhang Ruimin’s radical decision to kill middle management and use catfish managers makes perfect sense on a neural level. This keeps self-managed teams motivated and encourages open competition and innovation, instead of waiting from instructions from the boss, team members listen to the customer. Neuroscience tells us that our brains are more strongly geared towards loss avoidance than reward seeking. From an evolutionary standpoint, cooperation and competition amongst tribes is what got us here. When we introduce “catfish” to a barrel of other “fish”, not only will the perceived (and immediate) threat cause the fish to group together and provide them with a common purpose (survival), but it will also bring with it something novel. What is also interesting however, is that neuroscience also teaches us that we need to operate in an environment free from constant threat, where we look to our leader to create fair and transparent processes through clear communication. So how can a leader strike just the right balance between creating an environment of cooperation as well as one of competition? If we focus on people as opposed to profits and truly understand how our brains work, what motivates us, how we make decisions, how important our emotions are in everything we think and act upon, we would be on the right track (to put it mildly) in nurturing positive emotions which lead to positive behaviours. Credit should be given to the leading authority on emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman who said “the emotional brain responds more quickly than the thinking brain”. Why is this important to a leader? Because trying to run a business in today’s world seems like the most daunting of ventures, because you are dealing with people who are themselves in constant “survival mode” (governed by emotions such as fear, anger, disgust, shame and sadness). Most of us are familiar with the “fight, flight, freeze” response to a threat, according to Dr Tara Swart (Neuroscientist at MIT and Leadership coach) Empathy can have an “un-freezing effect” and turn avoidance behaviours into creativity and trust building behaviours. In fact, she argues that “Empathy is not just the ability to understand that others have emotions and feelings and to feel some concern or distress about them…but the ability to feel as they do…”to take a step in their shoes” (T.Swart and K.Chisholm, Neuroscience for Leadership, 2015).

New knowledge about neuroplasticity means that we are literally moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset where anything is possible. Interventions such as brain-based coaching, which combine psychological and physiological insights, can help executive leaders strengthen previously considered “soft skills” like emotional intelligence and agility but also help you understand how and why you and others behave the way we do and how you can design and sustain an environment where your people (and your organization) can thrive in the complexity of our times.