Changing the mind of a leader—literally

Today’s most effective leaders are skilled at making sense of complex environments. They are continually moving away from "command and control" leadership models to a "cultivate and coordinate" approach. These leaders harness “aha” moments and turn them into business innovations. And they take risks on a regular basis in order to revise their map of what’s really going on in their organization and the marketplace in which they operate. These leaders are internally powered by an innovative mindset that quite truly changes the playing field in which all businesses operate.

Then there are the rest of us—the vast majority of people in management and leadership positions—who fear failure and whose ability to innovate is underutilized; whose safety-first approach to doing business has likely served us well in the past but is now holding us back. 

What if you’re the kind of leader who feels stuck in old ways of doing things? What if you’d rather not be? Is it really possible to change your mindset—or the mindsets of your team?

Management experts are looking to neuroscience for the answer, and the answer appears to be a resounding “YES.” By probing the neural roots of behavior, brain science is helping leaders create change in themselves and in others and may indeed have great implications for the world of work. 

Neuroscience for Leadership

Neuroplasticity is the mode of forging new, stronger pathways in your brain. This plasticity means you can create new links between neurons, new pathways that, with a focused practice, can grow stronger. Old links weaken without use, and new behaviors on repeat can eventually crowd out the weakened ones. The most obvious clinical example of neuroplasticity is stroke rehabilitation. Through exercises in awareness, attention, and repetitive practice in a therapeutic environment, physiological changes do occur.

Recent research around this idea that the adult brain can reorganize itself and forge new connections persuaded MIT Sloan’s own Deborah Ancona, founder and faculty director of the MIT Leadership Center, that leaders can and do develop—and that they could be taught how.

This fall, MIT Sloan Executive Education’s Neuroscience for Leadership program is an exciting and distinctive collaboration between Ancona, whose pioneering research explores team performance and creative leadership, and MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Tara Swart, a world-renowned neuroscientist and executive leadership coach. Participants of this new course will gain greater insight about themselves as leaders and will leave with practical tools for enabling growth and learning mindsets at their organizations.

“In leadership education, we talk a lot about inertia and the inability to change,” says Ancona. “In my own work on sensemaking, the most difficult challenge for leaders is being stuck with seemingly fixed internal mental models. This partnership with Dr. Swart has helped me to understand that behavioral patterns are really all about brain functions. Designing this new program has been an incredible intellectual journey to discover what is known about getting stuck—and getting unstuck.”

Dr. Tara Swart shares in Ancona’s enthusiasm about the application of neurological research to leadership development. “We see this program as a true blend of these worlds. It’s not a neuroscience course, nor a pure leadership course either,” says Swart. “We will spend two days in the overlap and synergy between these fields of inquiry, helping executives in the room understand where they might be stuck in old patterns or ways of thinking, why they are there, and how to construct a context for change—in themselves and at their workplace. And it will include an element of exercise as well. While it will take more than two days to create substantive change, we want to start doing things that are good for the brain right away.”

The program promises to harness the latest findings in the field neuroscience in order to help executives embed sustainable behavior change in existing leadership patterns, inspire leading teams to be more innovative, and design work cultures that encourage growth, innovation, and trust throughout an entire organization.

“People are making large claims about the ability of the brain to change itself,” says Swart. “What we know about neuroplasticity now is that, within limits, you can change yourself … you can learn to be a leader at all levels—as a self-authoring person, respected husband, role-model mother, successful entrepreneur, or CEO of an iconic brand.”

Deborah Ancona is the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management at MIT Sloan. In addition to Neuroscience for Leadership, which will run November 4–5, 2014, she teaches in Transforming Your Leadership Strategy and the Executive Program in General Management (online) at MIT Sloan Executive Education.

Tara Swart is an executive leadership coach, medical doctor, neuroscientist, frequent keynote speaker, and the CEO of The Unlimited Mind. In addition to Neuroscience for Leadership, she teaches in the Advanced Management Program at MIT Sloan Executive Education. Follow her blog.

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