Neuroscience of Leadership

The brain is a mysterious thing. Why are some people good leaders, and why are some great leaders? 

Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of leadership styles. And it becomes apparent who go in the “good” camp and who are worthy of “great.”

The reason may be as simple (or complicated) as neuroscience. For my recent Target Marketing column, I realized the difference is often found in neuroscience. 

In “Neuroscience for Leaders,” a new book by Dr. Nikolaos Dimitriadis and Dr. Alexandros Psychogios, they share the importance of emotion in leadership when they say:

•    There is a neuroscience to leadership, one that allows managers to move from "good" to "great" by retraining thought patterns, nurturing emotions, and training yourself to respond with empathy. 
•    The brain is primarily "a social organ" and a great leader views the role as one of empathy.
•    The emotional brain is crucial for guiding our decisions and behaviors and it is always on duty.
•    Empathy is talked about in companies but rarely practiced in management. Managers desire to lead with more emotion, but scanning through spreadsheets and charts all day, responding to stress by becoming more analytical, and overemphasizing certain emotions--such as happiness or fear of failure--make leaders only partially effective.

Using the metaphorical left and right brain (which is discussed in my book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code”), I believe there are people who are better at blending the metaphorical left brain (logic and analytics), with the right brain (creativity and emotion).

The reference about moving from “good” to “great” reminds me of the classic book, “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins. 

In “Good to Great” there are descriptions of the most advanced “Level 5” leaders that take an organization from just “good” to “great”:

•    Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. Their ambition is for the institution, not themselves.
•    Level 5 leaders display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated.
•    Level 5 leaders are fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results.

I’ve worked as an employee or consultant with many types of leaders. My observation is that the great leaders, producing the best outcomes, had empathy, listened to the “worker bees”, quickly made go or no-go decisions, and had a magnetic personality. They were likeable. Three positive traits of people I’ve worked with, who were “great” marketers had these styles of leadership:

•    Tough as nails, but want everyone to succeed as individuals.
•    Delegated every decision about copy and creative to the professionals.
•    Were cheerleaders who empathized, knew every department’s responsibility and brought out the best in human behavior.

Then there are traits of other marketing leaders who weren’t at a Level 5 and got in the way of being effective:

•    The only good ideas came from them.
•    Decisions were painfully slow, or non-existent, and marketing opportunities were missed.
•    Chased the latest, bright shiny technology object, wasting time, and failed to test anything.

If you are a leader, consider how neuroscience research may be guiding you to a more effective style. And if you’re an aspiring leader, you now have a roadmap.


Gary Hennerberg

After a lot of years in marketing and sales, this is what I know works:

Stories sell. Think unique. Stimulate emotion. Close deals. And here are a few other gems from my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code.” Know the persona, interpret your offer and let your prospect give themselves permission to buy. That’s how the brain is wired. It’s how people think.

What else? When I’m not breaking down complex topics (or ones marketers over-complicate) into easy-to-grasp stories that sell, I crunch numbers. Manage projects. Write. Teach. Lead.