Insights from the Neuroleadership Summit 2012

October 17, 2012 Simon Leadership Development


This was my first Neuroleadership Summit so I was unsure what to expect. It is a relatively small event (circa 300 attendees) which is not surprising given the emerging nature of the discipline. For three segments of the day, there is only a single session to attend (i.e. no choice) with a choice of breakout sessions in the middle of the day along with the option of attending a special interest group session.

Each of the main sessions tends to have an academic and a business practitioner – a blended approach which generally seems to work quite well. Here are the highlights:

The Paradox of Caring: how personal should leadership be?
Ex hostage negotiator George Kohlrieser discussed the balance between Caring and Daring in leadership with the need for the leader to provide a secure base. People do not resist change, they resist the pain of change. Neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger presented the overlap between physical pain and social pain and the overlapping brain activity that exists between the two.

Why Culture Matters
David Amodio explained that biases are very difficult to unlearn and we develop them primarily through nurture (life experiences), not nature. Team culture and bonding tend to override cultural factors when we focus on commonality rather than differences. Leaders should value diversity because different people bring different perspectives.

The reality of the new leader: virtual, global and massive complexity
This was an interesting panel discussion. We learnt about the 4Cs of leading in a virtual and global environment – Collaboration, Creativity (and Innovation), Critical thinking and Communication. A key differentiator of successful leaders in the future will be the ability to learn and the ability to teach others to learn. An interesting piece of research to be presented was that leaders with high testosterone tend to be seen as collaborative in their own culture whereas those with lower testosterone tend to be seen as collaborative in other cultures.

A special mention too for one of the panel members, Bob Tobias who seems to be designing some very effective leadership development programs for public sector leaders that truly embrace what we are learning about the brain. Private sector leadership development practitioners (self included) should take note of the value of developing leaders in cohorts, action learning projects and individualized learning plans – all of which are very brain friendly approaches.

Tango and Leadership
An after hours session organized by Robin Bowyer saw a tango demonstration followed by tango lessons. And I thought Robin did a fine job of extracting some excellent connections between tango dancing and leadership – trust, decision making, connecting and active following.

Focus your AIM: a social cognitive neuroscience model for goal pursuit
Elliot Berkman and David Rock presented their new model for thinking about goal setting. The top level acronym was AIM – Antecedents, Integration and Maintenance – the first A has to go I think as I’m sure many people will be scratching their heads for the meaning of Antecedents. The accompanying ‘road’ visual was an excellent metaphor for absorbing the content.

Antecedents (before you hit the road) – goals require stickiness, motivation and social context.  

Integration (where the rubber meets the road) – Goal hierarchies (how and why are separate ways of thinking so the two need to get connected), implementation intentions (bridging the gap between intention and behavior) and meta cognition (awareness/consciousness).

Maintenance (cruise control) – Reward, habit and automaticity.

It was also interesting to see David present the three levels of difficulty in thinking and to consider that goals tend to be at the third (and most challenging) level – in the future, not yet experienced and uncertain.

Social Regulation: How we help others manage emotions
There was little in this presentation by Kevin Ochsner that I hadn’t encountered 20 years ago when studying NLP – such as the ‘chameleon effect’ that NLPers used to call ‘mirroring’.  The distinction was made between implicit and explicit social regulation and covered the perception of others, the actions of others and words/attitudes/opinions.

However, there was one thought provoking gem that came from the research presented by Kevin – that invisible support is more effective than visible support. Before leadership coaches around the globe go searching for a new paradigm, this research was based on personal situations rather than the business environment and as one fellow attendee pointed out “if you’re paying for a coach, you want their support to be visible”.  What wasn’t covered in any depth by Kevin’s presentation was how one should go about providing invisible support – maybe an area for further exploration.

Scanning the Pipeline: the neuroscience of leadership transitions
This was arguably the most valuable session of the summit for me. The three presenters were excellent – NLI faculty member Grace Chang provided very clear explanations of the science while Erica Fox (Google) and Karen Stefanyszyn (Aviva) provided great examples of how they were applying this at the first line manager and executive levels, respectively.

In considering leadership transitions there are three key neuro transitions:

–          Self-regulation (shift in reaction, use of self-control/inhibition, dealing with increased threats)

–          Attention/goals (shift to the social brain, shift in motivation/goals, moving from how to why)

–          Rewards (change in what, change in when, change in certainty, change in relatedness)

There were many other useful nuggets to come from this presentation. Grace provided the clearest and most compelling presentation I have seen of the reflexive X-system (low energy) and the reflective C-system (high energy) – leadership transitions require a shift from the X-system to the C-system.

The top 100 leaders at Aviva learn mindfulness meditation and this seems to have a profound effect on performance. Transition coaching is very valuable along with cohort learning.

Leadership Messes with the Mind
Ruby Wax hosted a debate on this new research into the link between stress and effectiveness among CEOs. According to the highly engaging Ms. Wax all successful CEOs are sociopaths and they need to learn to be human beings. David Reimer and David Rock did their best to present their research and Ethan Kross to provide critical evaluation of it but Ruby stole the show with one pragmatic insight after another – “are wealthy CEOs happy or high?”, “you can learn to be curious just by talking to taxi drivers” – priceless!

And one for the future…
Thanks to a very interesting presentation from Matt Lieberman, watch out for the emergence of Neuro Focus Groups – you heard it here first! 

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