Neuroleadership - ILM's Edge Magazine Interview with Michele Armstrong.

Neuroleadership: What is it and how it can help you to become a better leader

Thu Jul 23, 2015 10:21 AM In the first of our blog series on neuroleadership, Edge chats to Michele Armstrong, managing director of Acorn Principle Plus, on how neuroleadership can benefit managers.

Can you give us a brief overview of what the term neuroleadership actually means?
Neuroleadership was a term coined by David Rock, CEO of Results Coaching Systems, in 2006. It grew out of a need to understand more about how we could be better leaders to be more effective at leading others and ourselves by engaging with what our brain tells us about being human. It emerged at a time when, thanks to an increase in research technologies, neuroscientists were able to observe live human brains (for example by using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanners) and discover many insights about how our brains work.

The field of neuroleadership explores the neural basis of leadership and management practices, and gathers findings from a range of different sources such as social cognitive and affective neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, integrative neuroscience, neurobiology and other domains within neuroscience. It is hoped that by developing a science for leadership, that takes into account the physiology of the mind and the brain, it becomes more readily accessible to those leaders who are interested in development and improvement of self and others. It turns the soft skills of professional development into hard skills by getting the science behind it. I particularly like that the emphasis of neuroleadership is on people rather than management or leadership functions and it emphasises how we connect and inter-relate with one another.

How can it be combined with more traditional theories to a) help managers become better leaders and b) help managers to engage their teams?
There are four areas of study within neuroleadership These are:

Decision-making and problem-solving;
Emotional regulation;
Collaborating with and influencing others; and,
Facilitating change.
Each of them can integrate a neuroscience perspective with existing models that support us in addressing common issues. For example:

Helping managers to become better leaders

Lets say a manager is leading a team or organisation through change. We can draw on any of the well know change theories as we normally would to deal with peoples resistance to change; for instance Prochaska and Di Clemente is useful in assessing peoples readiness for change, Kotters 8 step model or Kurt Lewins three step model can offer us a process to work through and Daniel Goleman or Hershey and Blanchards can help us understand the value of flexibility and in applying the right approach for the right situation. (I've simplified here because most people who know about leadership will have their own go-to theories).

From a neuroleadership perspective we learn that the brains organising principle is to minimise threat and maximise reward and so we non-consciously behave in ways to avoid threat and bring us pleasure. David Rock came up with a useful tool (the SCARF model) to help us remember the areas most affected by threat or reward. The SCARF Model stands for: status, certainty, autonomy, relationship and fairness.

In my work as an executive coach, I used this model when working with two senior managers who were leading their teams through change within the same organisation. The way they were experiencing the change process was very different for each of the leaders. The first feared for his position in the organisation, experienced high levels of stress (due to the uncertainty and lack of autonomy over the outcomes) and was struggling to keep his team engaged through the process. The second focused more on the relationships he had with his team, ensured they were kept informed of any news as it happened (reducing uncertainty), keeping them connected to the bigger picture, involved them in decision making wherever possible (increasing autonomy) and did what he could to ensure a fair process. The SCARF model helped both managers reflect on their own performance and informed their future action with a view to keeping the balance on the reward side of the equation.

Engaging teams

Engaging teams is easier when you understand that human beings were designed to connect with others. As social beings, we are driven to engage and so, if we can create brain friendly environments, our teams will thrive. This involves a bit of neuro-biology and an understanding of how the neurotransmitters (chemicals that are passed on via neurons) and hormones (which travel via the blood stream) which our brain produces, impact our behaviour.

By understanding and making better sense of your emotions, are you in a better place to be able to regulate them?
As human beings, we are able to do something that animals cannot do – to self-reflect. We can take a position outside of our own mind and self-communicate to explore what’s going on: ‘what am I thinking?’; ‘what is my intention in this meeting?’; ‘what do I want to achieve? And so on. However, our internal dialogue isn’t always as positive as the one described here which comes from a place of positive intention and suggests a cognitive basis (i.e. thought through using prefrontal cortex (PFC) reasoning). Often though, our limbic system jumps ahead of our thinking processes (the amygdala reaction is faster than our PFC at responding – with the intention of keeping us safe from threat) and our emotions arise and generate the chemicals in the brain described earlier (usually cortisol and adrenaline for flight or fight purposes). For example, I remember being in an interview, experiencing high level anxiety, and I was unable to answer a simple question. The anxiety had caused an amygdala reaction and my brain was shunted into fight or flight response. My internal dialogue said, ‘think; you know this…’ Blank! ‘Try to remember…’ Nothing came. In the event of an amygdala response, anxiety (or fear or anger or any of the other negative emotions) closes down our ability to access certain parts of the brain – pre frontal regions - those used for memory and imagination (so I couldn’t remember what I knew or even bluff my way out by making something up). Cortisol is released and the capacity for learning and memory are diminished.  In times of sustained stress, cortisol is known to cause a lot of damage (described above), undermining capacity for resilience and impacting on mental health.

So, by understanding how our (negative) emotions can impact our behaviour and our health, our confidence, self-esteem and by knowing what happens when the amygdala response is triggered, we are better placed to regulate our emotions. Through my studies in neuroleadership (the neuroscience of leadership), I have learned a range of techniques that have helped me to moderate the impact of negativity. I shared one activity with the audience at the ILM Northern Conference in June called, “Clearing the Space” – this requires us to identify the feelings as they arise, to name the emotion (affect labelling) and to choose how we will deal with the emotion. In actual fact, by naming the emotion, the cortisol immediately dissipates and we feel calmer and more present as a result. The reason this happens is that ‘naming and choosing’ require cognitive brain functioning and decision making and so the PFC is called into action, we become more consciously aware and the amygdala can calm down.

Neuroleadership also introduced me to mindfulness and was the catalyst in my current learning journey into mindfulness (MSc in Mindfulness with Aberdeen University). My involvement with mindfulness over the past 3 years has taken me even further with regards to emotion regulation as mindfulness practice is known to dampen down the amygdala response and heighten our awareness of self in the moment.

What would your advice be to a manager currently under lot of stress and who is finding it difficult to control their emotions at work?
As an executive coach I rarely offer advice due to the fact that we are all unique individuals and just because something works for me doesn’t mean that it will work for you. More importantly, the act of exploring and finding out what works for you (i.e. self-determined learning) is empowering and creates neural pathways that, if used again and again, can create new habits and under-mine old wiring (such as your habitual response to stressors).  I have to add though, that getting rid of old habits is almost impossible but creating new habits in a conscious and deliberate way can change the structure of the brain (neuro-plasticity) and give you more possible options to choose from.

In our  leadership courses, we use a coaching approach to learning and so we share a range of neuroleadership tools and techniques and encourage managers who are feeling the negative impact of stress on their working life to try out a few and see if any work for them. I’d invite them to explore what, specifically, is triggering the stress and suggest they practice activities like ‘clearing the space’, random acts of kindness, keeping a gratitude journal, and setting positive intentions as often as they can (i.e. meeting their need to have some control/autonomy). I would also suggest speaking it through with a coach or a mentor (or a therapist if it is hindering their life and work) because talking (we call them conversations that matter) is a powerful way of releasing tension and to hear from the listener, who is in a position to notice blocks and barriers from an external perspective and may offer feedback that will raise their awareness to some of the habits that they can work on. Having worked with many stressed managers, I have learned that there is a cost involved in returning to our core way of being and the big question tends to be around what they will let go in order to ‘step back, think about what is important, organise their thoughts and proceed’ (Tim Gallwey’s STOP Tool). Some difficult decisions usually need to be made to restore balance.


Acorn Principle Plus, is an ILM Approved Training Centre offering Coaching and Leadership & Management qualifications. Neuroleadership is an integral part of any open or in-house programmes available and Acorn also offer a two day course with a specific neuroleadership focus: The Endorsed Award - Understanding Neuroleadership.

This interview was first published in The Edge on 23/07/15 as: 

Neuroleadership: What is it and how it can help you to become a better leader


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