The Brain of a Leader
The way in which a "leader" thinks and acts has its control in the brain. There are 3 main areas of our brain in which this control can lie.
The first is in the area that is common to all living creatures. This area is basically concerned with survival. Any perceived threat - real or imagined - must be dealt with and the most common means for dealing with it is fight, flight, or freeze. People for whom this is their main control area will oppose any attempts at change because, to them, the status quo gives safety and security. This area of control focuses on immediate emotional response that is designed to enable survival. Very often such responses occur before we have time to think - and sometimes we later have regrets for how we behaved. Of course, at other times we are very thankful for this response because it saved us from injury or accident.
The second area, the limbic area, is about relationships. This area is common to all mammals and allows us to learn from experience and to be concerned about those who are close to us. In this mindset we respond well to a conformance approach of positive reinforcement (I am rewarded when I do what you want, I am not rewarded when I fail to do what you want) and learning is in relation to this. In this area a "leader" can be impacted by precedent, influence, and by the effect of any action on key stakeholders with whom he or she has close relationships.
Research indicates that for most people the dominant areas of control in their brain are these two areas. In The Success Zone(2009, Mowat, Corrigan & Long,Global Publishing Group, Melbourne Australia) we call this "the red zone".
The third area for control is the neo-frontal cortex. This part of our brains is not usually fully developed until we are in our mid 20's and it allows for the higher level learning and problem solving that becomes necessary when we encounter totally new and different situations. When this area is dominant we are able to assess the reality of any threat and we can choose the most appropriate way of responding. Rewards and punishments of themselves now cease to be important. That which is important is professionalism, desired results, and personal growth. This is the area of control that is critical for leaders in an increasingly competitive world with rapidly changing technologies and circumstances.
In The Success Zonewe call the limbic-neo-frontal cortex combination "the blue zone".
One thing that most of us have in common is that we've been to school and it is our schooling which significantly impacts on whether or not we allow 'blue zone' control to develop.
When I was in school we did a lot of rote learning. The emphasis was on sitting still in class and understanding that the teacher had all the necessary knowledge - our role was to absorb what was being taught. These were the days when "obedience" was the key word in schools and, indeed, in society. In school, a failure to obey was followed by punishment such as the strap or the cane - corporal punishment was accepted and used! Whether at school or anywhere else, there was a culture of "respect" for people like teachers, police officers, and, in fact, anyone in authority or older than you were. In terms of work, men tended to have secure employment (women, of course, were not seen as being employable long-term as they would get married, have children, and move out of the workforce) and it was expected that if you stayed around long enough without making too many mistakes, you could get increasingly responsible positions in your company.
During the 1960's things started to change. By the end of the decade corporal punishment was effectively banned and "obedience" (do what I say or get punished) had been replaced by "conformance". In this new approach, those who did what they were told were supported: those that didn't were ridiculed, shouted at, excluded, largely ignored, or the like. The flow on from this into the workplace was that people were less prepared to accept authoritarian management and were concerned about their own future. A pattern started in which many people would change jobs every 3-5 years in order to further their personal ambitions. Of course many people were unhappy with the move away from rigid discipline and a lack of "respect" (which was really fear" by another name) and even today there are those who are advocates of corporal punishment.
Both of these approaches tended to lock us into the 'red zone' as our dominant brain control area.
The next shift came in the 1980's with the rise of new technologies such as computers and the internet which enabled immense amounts of information to be readily available to anyone who wanted it. In schools and workplaces this meant that teachers and managers could no longer rely on unquestioned compliance - facts and interpretation of facts could be checked easily and quickly. This, coupled with the break down of traditional compliance or obedience, meant that new approaches had to be found. Teachers moved to new ways of engaging students with content - many teachers moved from being presenters of content to facilitators of learning. In the workplace there was a loss of the traditional employee loyalty concept and job turnover increased once again with the rise of such approaches as out-sourcing and the use of contractors.
For most people today the dominant brain control area is the red zone. The implication of this is that we develop cultures in which conformance and low levels of risk taking are rewarded (ie an old-style approach) rather than engagement and a focus on new learning for new situations. The implication of this is that there tends to be some resistance to change and a desire to be guided by past experience.
"Engagement" may be a key word in education and in many workplaces. But "engagement" requires a 'blue zone' culture in the school or workplace. Unfortunately many educators and managers do not understand this.
Through the decades, however, there have always been some people who transcend the dominant approach. Most people can recall one or two teachers who had a lasting and profound positive impact on their lives. In fact about 5% of teachers fit into this category. These teachers instinctively use "blue zone" control in their brains. Roughly 5% of managers are also naturally in this space. These are the people who are able to easily develop cultures where everyone can be successful - these are highly effective leaders who achieve desired results through highly committed people.
The really good news is that anyone can learn to use 'blue zone' brain control and to develop 'blue zone' cultures.
The clue to this is to change behaviours. All behaviours, if repeated, are turned into habits. Leaders (like outstanding teachers) have a disproportionate effect on others. So if leaders can change their behaviours then they will heavily influence the culture in their organisation.
The key behaviours are related to how we connect with others through how we speak (particularly how we ask questions) and how we listen. Obviously, we can all ask questions and we can all listen but the default modes of doing this under conformance are quite different from those under engagement - a 'red zone' control of speaking is different from a 'blue zone' control of speaking.
Creating a high performing culture in which people are engaged (both with what they do and with those with whom they work) starts by ensuring when we interact with people our attention is focused totally on them - not on what we have been doing, 'should' be doing, or might be doing at some future time. When we do this and we both listen and ask questions from the perspective of helping others find the answers to the issues with which they are grappling we are well on the way to changing both our, and their, brain's area of control into the blue zone: we are starting to help people and organisations be increasingly successful.
Like any other behaviour, we can learn to do this.