The science behind successful business leaders

Leadership science

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” – TS Eliot,1920 (“The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism”)

TS Eliot’s famous epithet is both witty and profound. It is also wonderfully contrarian. We are taught that we should never steal or plagiarise, that we should find our own path. Yet here is one of the greatest poets of the modern age telling us that we should mercilessly pillage from others.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” – Sir Isaac Newton, 1675

This quote is seemingly much more reverential but the sentiment is the same. Perhaps the greatest physicist of all time, Newton is making it very clear that, despite everyone describing him as a one-of-a-kind genius, he could not have achieved any of his enormous breakthroughs without the preceding work of Plato, Euclid and many others. In fact, Newton was doing the same as Eliot – being both profound and cheeky. He made this statement in a letter responding to Robert Hooke’s claim that Newton stole the hypothesis on light from Hooke’s “Micrographia”, pointing out that Hooke’s own work was based on that of Descartes!

What’s the relevance of these quotes for business leaders and entrepreneurs?

We are relentlessly told that we should be ‘authentic’ and find our own approach to leading. Indeed, the idea of emulation is almost frowned upon. But why would one of the greatest poets and one of the greatest physicists tell us not merely to study the approaches of others, but to steal from them? Might they have a point? They absolutely do.

In any domain where excellence is achieved, the habits, behaviours, and most importantly brain patterns, of those who are world-class look more like each other than they look like others selected at random from the same field. And as I explored in my recent article about why you should copy others if you want to be a great leader, this is no different for entrepreneurs.

Because people have such different definitions of a leader, however, it’s important to be clear on what capabilities are most pivotal for business success and the neural pathways that make these capabilities possible.

In Bendelta’s research on the critical capabilities for the cyber-physical age, we identified what we term the 6Cs. While each organisation will have specific capabilities of importance to their strategic agenda, these six capabilities will be so universal that we anticipate every organisation to need to be at a world-class standard in at least two of the six domains. The 6Cs fall into two types: capabilities that are necessary for survival in the cyber-physical age (Capacity, Choice and Change Agility); and capabilities that will make a huge difference to the creation of value (Collaboration, Connection and Creativity). These are defined as follows:

  1. Capacity – Resilience and the ability to access purpose to achieve in challenging conditions.
  2. Choice – Using scientific methods and behavioural insights for high-quality decisions.
  3. Change agility – Identification of inflection points, then adaptation and swift execution
  4. Collaboration – The power of multiple people and perspectives to produce exponential outcomes.
  5. Connection – The power of empathy to lead individuals and teams, and enhance customer experience.
  6. Creativity – Non-linear thinking to generate new ideas and deliver innovation.

For each capability, there is already evidence for what relevant neural activity looks like in people who are world class in a particular field and how anyone can improve their mastery of that capability. In each case, the complexity of the capability means that there is not one but rather many brain processes involved. Here is an example for each:

  • Connection: Those with greater connection capability show increased connectivity between two brain regions (the temporoparietal junction, which is involved in thinking about others, and the inferior frontal gyrus, a region in the frontal lobe which supports thinking about abstract concepts such as belief and reality) is related to strengthened empathic ability
  • Creativity: Creative improvisation is consistently characterised by a dissociated pattern of activity in the prefrontal cortex. People who score in the top 15 percent of creative capacity have significantly more connections between the right and left hemispheres of their cerebral cortex
  • Capacity: More resilient leaders demonstrate better functioning of the anterior cingulate cortex, which is responsible for self-regulation, executive functioning and the ability to be agile in decision-making. The hippocampus is bigger, thereby memory is enhanced, and the links between the cerebral cortex and the brain’s stress centre are weaker – again optimising cognitive performance and emotion.
  • Choice: Better decision makers are able to use ‘system two’ (the deliberate type of thinking involved in focus, deliberation, reasoning or analysis) when it is really needed, rather than the fast, intuitive reactions and instantaneous decisions of ‘system one’ that governs our everyday decisions. This in turn can be traced to the level of activity in the emotional centres of the brain (e.g. the amygdala) and the self-control centres (e.g. the front-reticular system)
  • Change agility: Behavioural flexibility (the ability to adjust one’s goals to face new situations) is usually initiated by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and then supported during that behavioural adjustment by the temporoparietal junction.
  • Collaboration: Sitting between your eyes in your brain is the medial prefrontal cortex, which is not only activated the more you self-reflect but also helps to ensure that we have the same kind of beliefs and values as those around us. It also acts as a catalyst for social harmony. While the value of collaboration comes from diverse perspectives, it is the ability to value this diversity that contributes to becoming a better collaborator.

Why understanding the neuroscience helps

So why is understanding the neural pathways of core capabilities important to the success of a leader or entrepreneur? Do you really need to understand what’s going on in the brain to get better at something?

You may not need to, but whoever is designing and delivering the development process needs to. And if you’re doing that for yourself, then that person is you! In the same way that it’s impossible to become a virtuoso pianist if you don’t understand the relationship between the keys and the musical scale (or to become a world-class body-builder without understanding the muscle groups), it is immensely valuable to understand the relationship between the brain (the ‘instrument’) and capability (the ‘music’).

It’s a useful analogy. World-class pianists today make some of the best pianists of a century ago seem like amateurs. It’s because the science of piano technique has improved through deep study. Neuroscience offers the same opportunity for leadership.

To use another analogy, it’s like having perfect feedback on your technique every time you swing on the driving range. In Bendelta’s work developing leaders, this enables us to harness science, not supposition or subjective interpretation, to build mastery. It’s the difference between guesswork and calculation, and it makes a huge difference to the outcomes.

To help further, the mapping of capabilities to neural structures and activity is improving every year (or in some cases, every month). We have an ever-better picture of what happens in the brain of those who demonstrate a capability to a world-class standard. And even more importantly, we see that as the rest of us get better at that capability, our brain starts to look more like those who are world-class.

As TS Eliot might put it, when we do this, we are stealing the brain patterns of others. And that, as those who are truly brilliant in their field know, is the pathway to greatness.