The Synaptic Leader
“Leadership takes its shape by what is routinely focused on.”
We are not born leaders; this assembly process happens in life, through the synaptic organization of our brains and via patterns of interconnected neural highways. So what does this mean? The synapse is the space between neurons (brain cells) where information in the form of neurotransmitters is transported. Ok, so that is sort of interesting to some of us. What changes the synaptic organization of our brains? Attention. Here is where it gets really interesting. As leaders, what we focus on is what we become really good at. It is who we become…literally. Through neuroplasticity (our brains ability to rewire and reorganize), new connections and neural pathways in the human brain are created by where we focus our attention and with the questions we ask. This includes our attention to thoughts, images, activities, and our environment. As Joseph LeDoux (2002) highlights, biology and environment are not different things - they are just different ways of wiring the brain and encoding who we are.
The Quantum Brain - Pay Attention to What You Pay Attention To
Because the neural connections in our brains reflect what we attend to, the brain is technically a quantum environment, meaning that the conversations between neurons are initially waves of multiple possibilities until the observer (us) makes a decision about which neurons will be talking to each other. In quantum mechanics, this is referred to as collapsing the wave function into a particle (matter). The connection between brain cells, the synapse, is where information flow takes place. As a leader, pathways in the brain through which we think, behave, and feel are reflected in our choices, personalities, and life circumstances - on a minute to minute and day-to-day basis. This explains how we self-direct our leadership development and personal learning. However, we can choose to consciously self-direct or unconsciously self-direct, which is our default mode….to unconsciously self-direct that is. The Quantum Zeno Effect helps us understand this phenomenon. The act of repeatedly paying attention to something (observing) holds the brain circuitry associated with what is being observed stable, keeping it in place so that new mental maps/brain circuitry can be created (Schwartz, Stapp, & Beauregard, 2005). The electrochemical exchange between neurons, the synaptic connection, is predominantly decided at an unconscious level outside of our awareness. The impact of this is profound. This means that our brains are being constructed in a way that may not be in line with what we consciously intend for ourselves, which is why the reality we experience sometimes doesn’t match up with the outcome we had hoped for. By intentionally choosing where to put focus, leaders can play a significant role in changing the structure and function of their own brain, their mind, and their capacity to effectively lead and optimally perform. This takes mental effort, high levels of self-awareness and self-regulation, and a knowing that the brain and mind are interwoven.
“But although experience molds the brain, it molds only an attending brain….physical changes in the brain depend for their creation on a mental state in the mind - the state called attention.”
- Jeffrey Schwartz
Our capacity to alter the structure and function of our brains through directed attention and mental effort extends outside of our internal neural processes and into the world around us. Organizations are subject to the laws of quantum mechanics just as our individual brains are. This is why mindfulness practices are critical to leadership effectiveness. Stepping out of autopilot - states of mindlessness - opens up choice. It allows us to observe the ‘wave function’ and concentrate on who we want to be and how we want to show up as a leader. NeuroLeaders develop a clear, sharp focus to maximize cognitive efficiency within themselves and those around them, and a conscious awareness of what they intend to co-create with others. An organization is a social network where energy and information is shared between people - a collective quantum brain if you will. Through our mirror neuron system, emotions and intentions are contagious, shining light on the impact self-regulation - the ability to control and manage impulses, emotions, and intentions - has on social regulation within the context of organizational change. By biologically mirroring what another person does or says, we are able to map out the minds of other people (Siegel, 2010). Dan Siegel refers to this as our “resonance circuitry.” Essentially, we are neurochemically linked at the relationship, organizational and systemic levels. The mind does not exist within one person; it is mutually shaped between each other.
To fully grasp what is entailed in the advancement of a new change leadership paradigm, we have to put a powerful scope on the systemic relationship between the hidden biological processes and what emerges at the exterior level. As Charles F. Haanel reminds us, “the world without is a reflection of the world within.”
Where do you intend to place your attention today?
LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic Self: How our brains become who we are. New York: Penguin Group.
Schwartz, J., Stapp, H., & Beauregard, M. (2005). Quantum physics in neuroscience and psychology: a neurophysical model of mind-brain interaction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 360, 1458, 1309-1327.
Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantom.