December 2020 | 

The Leader’s Brain

The Leader's Brain

Everything about organizational life feels harder today. Headlines from just a year ago about “the most pressing leadership challenges” seem almost quaint when we’re faced with massive uncertainty, economic turmoil, and a workforce that’s severely stressed and scattered (whether at home or in offices in other time zones or continents). What leaders don’t need are more platitudes or promises of quick fixes.

Enter pioneering neuroscientist Michael Platt, whose research has deepened our understanding of how key areas of the brain work — and how that understanding can be applied in business settings. In his new book The Leader’s Brain: Enhance Your Leadership, Build Stronger Teams, Make Better Decisions, and Inspire Greater Innovation with Neuroscience, Platt reveals the latest insights and results from the lab. He provides evidence-based, actionable knowledge to help leaders with their most daunting challenges, including connecting and communicating with others, building team chemistry, inspiring greater innovation, making better decisions, and driving performance.

“Leadership is a set of abilities with which a lucky few are born,” he explains. “They’re the natural relationship builders; master negotiators and persuaders; agile and strategic thinkers; and seekers of new perspectives, ideas, and voices. The good news for the rest of us is that those abilities can be developed.”

Because relationships are pivotal to leadership, the book’s opening chapters explore the breakthroughs in neuroscience relating to our ability to connect and communicate with others. Researchers have not only identified the brain mechanisms that support these abilities — the “social brain network” — but have also revealed ways we can enlarge and strengthen them, making the connections between neurons denser. Platt offers concrete steps for enhancing social brain function and for turning down the negative effects of common impediments like biases and feelings of power.

Insights about the social brain extend beyond individual leadership to teams. Research shows that during optimal performance, as members’ social brain networks are activated, their brains, and even their heart rates, are synched with one other. These effects can be promoted outside the lab (even across non-co-located teams), and they have important implications for group processes including problem solving and decision making. A number of practical methods for promoting synchrony and building team identity are shared in Chapter 2.

The Leader’s Brain also explores an area rarely associated with scientific study: creativity. As Platt explains, neuroscience has identified the origins of and brain processes involved with an exploratory mindset (Hawaiian roundworms were a key). While we’re all born with an innate ability to explore, some people are naturally more adept than others. Again, though, the book explains how our natural innovation abilities, both individual and collective, can be “dialed up” relatively easily.

As he does in the The Neuroscience of Business: Innovations in Leadership and Strategic Decisions program that he directs, Platt concludes with a roundup of current developments and areas for future research. “Can you buy a better brain?” he asks. Neuro-enhancing techniques, devices, and drugs — some of which are already, controversially, on the market — may hold the key. The ethical and legal implications of these developments are considered at length.

“As we navigate the COVID-19 ‘new normal,’” says Platt, “there is an enormous opportunity, and real imperative, to be better leaders — at the office, in our homes, and in our communities. Neuroscience can help illuminate this new, enlightened path forward.” The Leader’s Brain shows us how.