Leadership development: The definition of insanity... The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results


By liamarus, 28 October, 2013

Research indicates that 75% of organisations are not happy with their leadership development programmes. But when you look at the fact that today’s leaders are being taught the same leadership ‘principles’ as their predecessors were, it is not difficult to understand why this is the case. With organisations doing the same thing over and over again - and not drawing on any new research - leadership development has become stuck in a rut.

Natalie Cunningham, professional associate at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) and owner of leadership development consultancy Origo – in association with Knowledge Resources - has just concluded a leadership development survey of 160 companies. The goal was to find out:

  • How these companies carry out their leadership practices,
  • How leaders are developed in these companies,
  • What skillsets these companies expect from their leaders, and
  • How neuroscience can help in developing leaders.

What is neuroscience and how can we see it in action?

According to Natalie, neuroscience uses science to explain the things that we intuitively know:


In a well-known neuroscience experiment, a group of scientists attached FMRI machines onto a person’s head. They then asked the person to play freely on the piano and recorded the activity that occurred in the subject’s brain while he was playing. The scientists then asked the person to play piano from a learned piece of music and then compared which parts of the brain were activated when the person played freely versus when he played from sheet music.

Neuroscience can be used to discover which parts of the brain are activated for leaders

Neuroscience has revealed that:

-  When we become goal focused, the empathic region of our brains is not activated, meaning that physiologically, we cannot be focused and compassionate at the same time, and

- With stress, adrenaline is released and your creative thinking becomes limited.
Company leaders are all stressed, which means they are programmed to think in ‘fight or flight’ mode, limiting their out-of-the-box thinking.

How can we change this?

Natalie believes that we can take the following four steps to improve our organisations’ leaders:

1.    Change your organisation’s focus

Organisations and employees need to focus on possibilities, hopes, dreams and learning rather than personal development plans as these highlight the gaps, that is, what an individual is not doing, which increases anxiety and prevents us from becoming great leaders.

2.    Play, play and play some more

It is well known that playing inspires creativity but organisations are not encouraging their employees to play enough. They put their staff members into figurative, or sometimes actual, classrooms when they are learning. HR professionals and business owners need to restructure the way they think and their policies so that they move away from classroom thinking to more out-the-box-thinking and different ways to increase social engagement, like gamification. (To read more on gamification, click here.)

3.    Encourage quiet time

Quietness is the best thing for creativity. This does not mean that you need to force your employees to sit at their desks in front of their computers in silence. You need to encourage your employees to read books, take strolls and reflect as this is when people get their best ideas.

4.    Be aware of the social contagion theory

Neuroscience has picked up on something called the social contagion theory, which works very much like the following example:

I had a fight with my boyfriend this morning, which made me feel very irritable and angry. I walked into the office and immediately had to have a meeting with my boss. I didn’t tell my boss about this but she picked up on my irritation, which in turn caused her to walk away angry and agitated.

My boss was ‘infected’ by my emotions and started to mirror them. Neuroscience has revealed that on average, this ‘infection’ travels directly to seven other people.

The social contagion theory also applies to positive and happy emotions. This is why, in the conventional pyramid structure of an organisation, it is essential for the leader to be positive and inspiring as this filters down through the organisation and is mimicked by the employees.

Leaders who are aware of this behavioural pattern have the advantage as they can address any negative emotions, put these aside and work on inspiring colleagues and employees across the organisation.

Natalie Cunningham will be speaking at this year’s IPM Convention running from 3 – 6 November 2013. The topic of her presentation is Neuroscience Leadership. Follow this link for more information.

by Frew Murdoch

This article first appeared on HR Pulse.