The Age of the NeuroLeader

The Age of the NeuroLeader

Written on 11/20/2012

Brain development is leadership development

For decades effective leadership has been about having very specific attributes and achieving results. This is progressively being recognized as an outdated paradigm. Today, we are learning that leadership is more about the optimization of human performance through a deliberate focus on self-development. The new leader has a growth vs. fixed mindset, values transparency, and is adaptive and resilient - able to engage multiple generations in innovative thinking and problem solving. This leader doesn’t try to change others, they change themselves. The facilitation of positive change in an organization, family system, or community starts with personal change - personal, deliberate change in the human brain.

Recently, we were listening to a previously recorded session from the 2011 NeuroLeadership Summit featuring Dr. Paul McDonald and were struck by his statement “brain development is the same as leadership development”, causing us to pause and reflect on the limitless implications of this declaration.  As NeuroLeadership Coaches, we have recognized this as the key ingredient to achieving optimal performance, but had never heard anyone state it that succinctly and with such matter-of-factness. We quickly considered how many leaders are unaware of this profound truth alongside the slow but steady spreading of acknowledgement across the human potential, leadership development and personal change industries that this is paramount to creating a very different future for ourselves.

So what does this mean to develop our own brain for optimal performance? And how is this synonymous with leadership development? And just who is this ‘brain-based’ leader?

The Emerging NeuroLeader

A NeuroLeader is someone who exemplifies the knowledge of the organizing principle of the human brain to ‘minimize danger, maximize reward’ (Gordon, 2009) and actively develops the neurobiological capacities that underlie effective decision-making and problem solving, collaboration with others, and self-regulation for the successful facilitation of positive change and human performance optimization. That may not sound like the most brain friendly definition, but bear with us….

To exemplify the knowledge of the organizing principle of the brain translates into understanding how our brain’s cognitive and creative capacities are better accessed and maximized when our reward vs. threat circuitry is engaged - especially during a change process. Engaging with someone in a way that promotes positive feelings may sound somewhat straightforward. However, to genuinely be successful at activating reward states (engagement) in employees more frequently than the circuitry associated with states of threat and alarm (disengagement), which is our default state, takes knowledge of the human brain and high levels of emotion regulation, mindfulness, and social regulation. All of these skill sets have correlates in the brain of course, and must be developed intentionally and on purpose. These neural pathways are at the heart of becoming a NeuroLeader - someone who is keenly invested in looking under the hood to see what is entailed in deeply growing themselves and their abilities to connect with others in a way that accelerates the pace of progressive change.

Optimizing with the Brain in Mind

David Rock (2009) stated “…the ability to intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years ahead.” We propose that the “years ahead” are approaching us quite rapidly, as the current leadership paradigm continues to shift before our eyes. With the emerging field of NeuroLeadership, we are now integrating neuroscientific discoveries into leadership development and change management, with profound influences on our current mental models for what a leader is and how we envision personal learning and transformation.

What we are unearthing is creating ripples at many levels of our awareness. Even our language is morphing, as well as how we structure our organizations, and who we identify as leaders. We recently heard a presentation by Steven Rice, Executive Vice President of Human Resources at Juniper Networks, where he described how they identified “connectors” within his organization, uncovering an impressive amount of leadership existing outside formal leadership roles. It became evident to him and others that these "connectors", also referred to as collaborators, were the pillars within the organization ensuring people were linked and that vital information was shared. As a result of this finding, levels of upper management were removed, as their contributions were pinpointed to be insignificant in relation to the cost of maintaining their positions - a radical and refreshing new way of thinking.

As we learn about the social brain, we are coming to terms with the realization that many of our leadership practices have resulted in physical suffering for the people involved in the efforts to create a sustainable difference, as the neuroscience findings inform us that social and physical pain are essentially the same at the neurobiological level (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2003). A NeuroLeader considers this in their intrapersonal and interpersonal communications, knowing that our minds are not separate, but entangled and existing between us and others - as evidenced by recent findings about the role of our mirror neuron system (Cattaneo & Rizzolatti, 2009). These tiny brain cells uncover that our true intentions are under the spotlight, transmitting a two-way emotional and neurobiological subtext during, not some, but all conversations. NeuroLeaders are conscious that the groundwork vital to accessing human potential and expanding talent in any organization or system is self-expansion. They hold a mental model for integration and growth, possess the ability to link, and are able to see the intelligence in the whole versus parts; and must ultimately be able to inspire others to do the same.

Brain-Based Conversations…Stretching for Potential

The dance between self and others is intensely biological, attaching us to each other in vulnerable and sensitive ways that need to be respected if we are to approach problem solving in a novel way with collective inspiration for real sustainable change.  As an engineer of human relationships, a NeuroLeader is attentive and present with this exchange in a way that engages mutual leadership and creates a safe and secure base for risk taking. To help people experience a clear and deep understanding of complex situations, NeuroLeaders deliberately disengage from states of mindlessness to cultivate an atmosphere conducive to human insight and the innovative resolution of dilemmas and roadblocks. For engagement to be successful, the process of hearing insights within oneself and bringing others to a place of knowing is graceful and much like a neurobiological tango of mindful dialogue. When we help our leaders embody the role of a coach, they discover how to use the ‘dance of insight’ (Rock, 2006)) to facilitate effective and efficient change conversations, especially when the topic of discussion has the potential to provoke the threat circuitry and trigger states of cognitive disengagement. Learning how to activate a reward response (‘toward’ state) in others is essential to establishing a neural climate that encourages the production of new insights and fresh ideas. With these skills, leaders are able to promote self-directed learning and change in others, which can then be followed by the repetition and reinforcement of new emotional, thinking, and behavioral habits that are in sync with successful goal achievement.

As we bring hard science to the forefront of human performance optimization, we see the NeuroLeader beginning to surface, evolving a new leadership archetype - one that attracts people to change systemically instead of mechanistically, inspiring others to immerse themselves in looking below the surface to investigate what honestly advances human functioning and positive change in ourselves, our organizations and our communities.


1.  Cattaneo, L. & Rizzolatti, G. (2009).The mirror neuron system. Neurobiological Review,

66(5),  p. 557-560

2.  Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI

study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290–292.

3.  Gordon, E. 2009. Brain revolution, San Francisco, Brain Revolution Publications.

4.  Rock, D. (2006). Quiet leadership: Six steps to transforming performance at work. New York.

Harper Collins.

5.  Rock, D. (2009). Managing with the brain in mind. Strategy + Business, 56, 2-10.