I recently read a Wall Street Journal article on neuroscience studies of leaders and their decision-making process. To be completely transparent, the article quotes extensively from Dr. Srini Pillay and Dr. David Rock. (We have a formal partnership with Dr. Pillay, and Dr. Rock wrote an endorsement of our book, “The Star Factor,” so of course I like their work.) The article provides an excellent description of what neuroscience researchers have found about a variety of conditions such as the impact of anxiety on decision-making. One of the main points of the article is that leaders use emotional and social neural capabilities as much as—or in some cases, more than—rational processes when making critical decisions. In this regard, the best section of the article is near the end where it discusses the importance of leaders staying positive. But this article, like so much else in the field, falls short of practical advice on how leaders should think and act differently. The primary advice is to be “mindful.” This notion is well expressed by both Pillay and Rock: Be aware of and use your intellect to manage your emotional responses. Although mindfulness is a powerful tool (I practice it myself) we think there’s a better way—a way that integrates Dan Pink’s work in “Drive” with this neuroscience. Leadership should consciously do three things that proactively preempt many of the negatives of human reaction while leveraging the best of the findings in this article:
- Define a collective, compelling purpose for the organization. This isn’t some lame mission statement, but a group effort to write a short, powerful statement of the greater social good created by the organization. Having a purpose reduces anxiety; it’s the foundation for all decisions and builds positive images that are easy to adopt as personally engaging.
- Define a collective “path to mastery” for achieving the purpose. When everyone knows there’s a clear path to developing the attitudes and skills needed to achieve the purpose, and that everyone’s colleagues are working hard to be excellent at their functions, the best of the neuroscience comes into play.
- Engage in conscious, reflective learning. Spend five minutes each day to ask, “What did I learn today?” Ideally, take another 30 minutes once a week to discuss these learnings with two to four colleagues. These reflective processes go a long way in leveraging the positive aspects of the neuroscience research while avoiding the negative ones.