What Neurological Research Reveals About Leadership Development and Training for the Next Generation

Sooner or later, any 21st century organization has to face the succession challenge; that is, making sure the appropriate candidates can take over key roles within the enterprise. To facilitate the change, management teams often establish different strategies to ensure that potential successors have access to the required tools and information to take over.


Some of the most common development strategies include: participating to internal or external training programs, appointing candidates to positions that are gradually more and more challenging, and meeting regularly with coaches, mentors or more experienced workers within the enterprise.


These strategies are far from new; they have been used for centuries. An apprentice would accompany his master in order to learn the rudiments of his profession by observing, listening, experimenting and discussing. Even then, our ancestors knew that these fundamental pillars of learning were the most efficient ways to transfer knowledge.


Today, ongoing research in the field of neurology provide us with new findings on the development of human potential also known as leadership. Can we benefit from the results of these studies?


Numerous teams and researchers have come up with the following findings on how the brain functions:


1.The brain is malleable.

développer les compétences propices au leadershipTwenty years ago, it was believed that brain cells started deteriorating at the age of 25. However, recent research findings demonstrate that it depends on how and how much the brain is being used. The brain works like a machine, constantly making connections with the external environment. It can go on developing itself as long as new connections are made.


  • Approaches: In the case of leadership development, the amount of experiences lived is more important than a person’s age. That is, anyone wishing to develop their leadership skills should experience different leadership situations (i.e. leading a committee or managing a project) while improving their abilities in their own field of expertise.


    In other words, any knowledge worker can develop their leadership as long as they are ready to live new experiences and that they take pleasure in doing it.


2. The brain wants to remember as many things as possible.

As was mentioned above, the brain is like a computer. By living different experiences, it permits us to anticipate similar situations and automate our perceptions and emotions in turn requiring less energy to achieve everyday tasks and actions. Changing our habits is consequently a difficult task because the more we focus on a given circuit within the brain, the more it becomes connected to this habit.


  • Approaches: Assigning leadership tasks to an individual within their range of expertise (i.e.: assigning an accountant to different positions related to financing) might develop their confidence in executing different tasks but it would also create a mechanical way of perceiving situations and reacting to them. Without wanting to, our brain applies the same reasoning to similar situations.


    In order counter this automatism, organizations could appoint their workers to tasks that are unrelated to their domain of expertise (even if temporary as long as they last a minimum of 6 weeks) so that they learn to look at problems from different angles. Workers can thus increase their ability to influence, understand different issues and better communicate with others.


3. Establishing new neuronal connections is much easier than modifying old ones.

The brain can learn new ideas and establish connections at an exponential rate. This learning process is facilitated by positive and constructive social interactions in an environment of trust.


On another side, stress is caused by different factors such as threat, fear, uncertainty or a lack of autonomy. This in turn, limits the attention dedicated to establishing new connections because the brain’s automatic reaction to negative stress is to withdraw into an “fight” or ” flee” mode.


  • Approaches: Situations of negative stress are not propitious times to attempt any type of personal development. Ideally, leadership skills should be developed by experiencing new and diverse situations while at the same time receiving the necessary support and being able to look back on the connections established through insights and feedbacks.


4. The brain detects non-verbal signals before other types of messages.

A study conducted by Alexander Pentland reveals that we are much more influenced by non-verbal signals than we think.


  • Approaches: Leadership development programs should not omit the candidate’s non-verbal behaviors such as: openness to ideas, adaptability, control/autonomy, confidence/distrust, fear/hope, etc. Furthermore, candidates should learn to read non-verbal behaviors in others. They should also know and understand their own emotions; emotions come out sooner or later, no matter how hard one tries to repress them.


5. Social relations stimulate new connections.

renforcer le leadership social, communicationThe more positive and pleasant the relationship, the more the individual can gain from it. Neuroleadership expert David Rock adds that prior to the advances in the field of neuroscience, psychological or social pain (the feeling of being publicly rejected or humiliated) was an unsolvable problem. Today, studies reveal that the brain deals with psychological pain the same way as it does with physical pain. The same goes for social and physical rewards. In both cases, the same areas of the brain are activated in the process.


  • Approaches: The task of developing an individual, a team or an organization’s leadership or mobilizing the greatest number of people to occupy leadership positions is a process of social reinforcement which includes: giving positive feedback, treating a person fairly, trusting them and openly recognizing their abilities and contributions, etc.



Recent brain research reveals that human beings have an almost infinite potential to develop their leadership as long as they live diverse, stimulating, positive and socially recognized experiences. In other words, as long as one dares to experiment and venture outside of their comfort zone.


What is more, those in charge of assisting potential leaders or teams in the development of their leadership should make sure to establish a mature dialogue and a bond of trust, two necessary conditions for learning, making new connections and opening oneself to others and to the world.


Edith Luc, Ph.D.


©2012 Edith Luc. All Rights Reserved.

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