Leadership - Whats Happening?

Leadership - Whats Happening?

I am going to go out on a limb here, but bear with me…

Nothing much has happened in the field of leadership for a very long time.

Actually, let me rephrase that:

Nothing much of interest has happened in the field of leadership for a very long time. 

Lots of sound, lots of fury… but does it really signify anything?

If you look at just about any post-graduate course on leadership you will, I wager, struggle to find anything new.  All the old reliables are inevitably there:

-          Scientific Management

-          “Great Man” or Charismatic Leadership

-          Transformational Leadership

-          Situational Leadership

-          Distributed Leadership

-          Etc etc

If the lecturer is really “down with the kids” they might include reference to some of the apparently exciting things coming out of tech companies and the like, but let’s look at some of those. 

First, we have Zappos who brought us Holacracy – an organisational structure that did away with hierarchy, job titles etc and instead brought in self-managing teams and distributed decision making.  Unfortunately the process was apparently such a mess and so stressful that 18% of the workforce left within three months of it being introduced.  

Second, there is everybody’s favourite streaming service Netflix which attempted to implement unlimited holidays only to find that rather than giving people a year round holiday buzz, it increased the stress and  burnout levels of their employees and resulted, oddly enough, in fewer holidays taken!

And finally the underwear start-up Thinx, where the founder and CEO tried to develop a “Burning Man” culture without recognising that organisations and offices need boundaries other than those which suited her or her mood.  The results were particularly odd and, indeed, disturbing with more than one allegation of harassment.

Now clearly this is just a selection of, I hope, well-intended approaches that have not ultimately worked.  But they are salient lessons nonetheless.

Yet instead of dwelling on them we should rather look at some genuinely really interesting things that are happening in the field of leadership.  And the funny thing is that these breakthroughs are not happening in hip young Silicon Valley startups nor are they emerging from business schools.  No… It is the world of neuroscience where the fascinating insights are emerging.

So let’s look at some examples.

Assessing Credibility

Dare I say it, but so often in organisations people become not because of any skills, capabilities or attributes, but rather because they are promoted to a role which brings with it a nice title and, quite possibly, a team to manage.  As though in tacit recognition of their inadequacies many such people seem to delight in loudly claiming the title of leadership for themselves while failing to demonstrate even the barest shred of leadership ability. 

In most cases when we meet such people, we very rapidly start to see through the bluff and bluster.  But why is that?  In a process very similar to the way in which we assess brands and companies, Lyons and O’Mara argue that “we judge people first on their warmth and then on their competence, in a few seconds”.  

I am sure we all know people who are great company and quite engaging (i.e. high on warmth), but wouldn’t put them in charge of anything more complex than the opening of envelope (to steal an old analogy!)!  Conversely, I am just as sure that through our careers we have encountered people whose competence and skill cannot be doubted (i.e. high on credibility), but who we struggle to engage with on a personal level and so do not find particularly inspiring.

In terms of leaders and leadership it is important to remember that just because someone has a leadership position or title does not mean that their colleagues necessarily perceive them as a leader.  Only when both credibility and warmth are present can anyone really expect others to follow.


As people progress up the management and leadership chain, the stress and pressures almost inevitably increase.   A remarkable study by the Royal College of Surgeons and the Irish Management Institute some years back found that the self-reported quality of life experienced by senior managers was worse than that reported by sufferers of Motor-Neurone Disease!  Heavy workloads, travel, stress and the need to meet to increased demands from stakeholders and shareholders all inevitably take their toll and can lead to less time allowed for sleep and rest (and poorer quality sleep when it does happen!).

So what is the impact of this?

In the short-term, missing a night’s sleep can result in a 10% reduction in our measured IQ and a poorer memory.   Longer-term, extended sleep deprivation can lead to impaired mental acuity and a severely depleted immune system.  Not only are we not operating at our best physically, neither are we mentally at our sharpest – just when we need to be!

An acquaintance of mine was, for a period, in the inner circle of a leading political figure in the UK. This was during a period when the wheels were starting to come off the leadership juggernaut and preceded a number of significant changes – both within his party and the country.   Instead of managing himself and ensuring to get sufficient sleep and rest, the leader instead chose to work “harder” and sleep less until in the end he was not getting any sleep at all – preferring to work instead!  Perhaps needless to say, the ultimate political collapse was sadly inevitable as the person in question struggled to grapple effectively with the challenges facing him and eventually burnt out.

Brain plasticity

Neuroscientists have established that the brain is constantly changing and growing throughout our lives.  One thing that drives changes to the brain are our experiences, including significant stimuli such as learning new skills which can lead to the growth of particular parts of the brain associated with that skill.  A study of taxi drivers in London, for example, found measurable growth in those parts of the brain associated with spatial memory.  This was brought about by the need to learn and remember details of over 25,000 streets within the greater London area and the possible routes between them.  A massive task if there ever was one!

Another significant stimulus comes about due to the roles which we take on and the status which can often accompany those.  A study by Japanese scientists, for example, demonstrated that money and status (two things often associated with moves up the corporate or professional ladder) lead in their mildest form to similar physiological processes in the brain as intimacy or placing a winning bet.  In extreme cases – and if overdone – the impact on the brain can be similar to (and just as addictive as) a snort of cocaine.  No wonder that bonuses and big pay packets are such a critical concern to many CEOs!


While the big answer to the even bigger question of what is leadership remains elusive, there are useful lessons to be learned from looking beyond the narrow field of leadership studies.  One area of emerging importance is neuroscience, and practicing leaders and those supporting them – consultants, HR teams and the like – would be wise to pay attention to the key lessons from this developing field.

About Laurence Knell

Laurence Knell is a director of Strategic Innovation Partners, a Dublin-based consultancy, and co-founder of Brain for Business.  He is an Associate Lecturer with the Open University Business School, specialising in the areas of strategy, innovation and creativity.

About Brain for Business

By linking neuroscience theory and business practice in a unique and accessible way, Brain for Business will bring the latest practical insights from the world of behavioural and brain science to enable senior organisational leaders to deliver better personal and business outcomes.
Delivered in an intimate, day-long and highly-participative format, workshop participants will be given tools that they can immediately apply to enhance their practice as leaders and deliver breakthrough results for their organisation.  The first Brain for Business event will take place at The Merrion Hotel in Dublin on 8th September, 2017.  See www.brainforbusiness or @brainforbiz for more information.


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