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Rewiring your brain – new pathways to leadership

The Leadership Programme cropped

There are 500 people in the next room and you are about to address them. In your head a voice says: ‘I can’t do this, I’m no good at public speaking, I’m a failure...’, but you have a strategy…

You tune the voice to a Donald Duck sound and suddenly the same negative mantra, loses its terrifying impact. You smile, straighten up, step forward, and the audience is yours.

What happened in those few seconds gives us crucial insights into the nature and conditions of good leadership. It is about neural pathways and emotional switches, and how changing these can enable us to learn, grow and innovate.

There are eight core emotions and the grooves in our minds:

Happiness suzanne

These emotions equip us to survive in a mostly hostile environment – which explains why the balance is so heavily tipped towards the negative.

For a long time in human evolution the best strategy for survival has been to avoid danger, scan the world for signs of it and quickly step out of the path of the sabre-toothed tiger.

However, this also often stands in the way of dealing with modern leadership challenges; our ancient ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction kicks in and, as a result, we can feel anger, fear or frustration.

In response, we tend to switch into ‘doing’ mode (= solving problems and getting things done), which is very useful to arrange hectic work schedules and invent new technologies, but it doesn’t help with our negative mindset or with annoying colleagues.

However, when you look at your current state of mind and focus on how you’d like to be instead, your mind starts asking critical questions, such as: Where did I go wrong? What’s wrong with me? Why do I always feel bad when I have to talk to large audiences?

Focusing on the gap between how you feel and how you want to feel highlights it.

Making space – from doing to being

One of the things the Henley Leadership Programme asks you to do is to step back from ‘doing’ mode and into ‘being’ mode to create space – in your head, in your diary, in your life.

Human beings don’t learn and thrive if they don’t feel safe. When we are experiencing a negative universal emotion – fear, anger, shame, disgust or sadness – our brain cells harden and are not open to forming the new neural pathways that are the essence of developing new ways of being, doing and thinking.

However, when we experience one of the positive universal emotions – trust, joy or excitement – our brain cells soften and are open to creating new pathways. MRI scans have shown that at the most fundamental physiological level, human beings are wired to learn when the conditions for experiencing trust, followed potentially by joy or excitement, are present.

This has profound implications for leadership.

So much of leadership is about enabling and empowering others to move individuals, teams and organisations forward so it’s essential to evoke trust in others, creating the opportunity for learning and sustained new pathways.

Today’s leaders often face flat organisations where power and authority are not so easy to enact – unless you are right at the top. Without clear hierarchies you need to be empathetic and convincing to motivate people to change their behaviour.

As a Henley programme participant said: ‘Leaders don’t do tasks, they work with people’. So rather than thinking about good leadership as manipulating others (which rarely works long term), it should be about rewiring yourself.

Techniques like mindfulness can help you to create space between your emotions and what you or others are doing. You can’t always influence other people, but you can change your own behaviour. If you are going to be an impactful leader, people need to remember what you said – so paint the picture, and create positive feelings.

As with other disciplines like medicine, it makes a lot of sense to look at leadership in a holistic way. Our emotions influence our posture and our facial expressions, but the good news is that it also works the other way round. If you take a pencil and put it lengthwise between your teeth, your cheek muscles signal a grin – happiness – to your brain and dopamine is released. You start to feel more positive.

To set the scene for successful professional lives we need to get body and mind into the right state. So next time you are worried, angry or afraid, take the pencil between your teeth and tune the voice in your head. Then step onto the podium and have fun!

Published 24 May 2021
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