Neuroscience and Leadership

Jim Shipley

  By: Jim Shipley, Leadership and Human Development Consultant
10 December 2012

The Mind Using the Brain to Create Itself*

During the autopsy of Albert Einstein’s body after his death in 1955, the pathologist removed the lifeless brain and preserved it in formaldehyde hoping that neuroscientists would someday be able to examine it and determine why Einstein was such a genius.

There is a deep irony in this story, for behind the medical doctor’s good intention was a faithful allegiance to the 400-year old mechanistic worldview that Einstein had spent his entire life working to transcend. I wonder if Einstein would have approved of the doctor’s actions had he had a choice in the matter!

The mechanistic logic goes like this: All of reality is like a big clock. And by simply taking apart the clock and analyzing its parts, we can fully understand the mechanism by which the clock ticks.

Einstein’s revolutionary ideas in physics were the catalyst for a total transformation in the way we view physical reality. The Newtonian, Cartesian worldview was upended; and a brave new world of wormholes, strings, and parallel universes continues to unfold as our feeble minds try to grasp the implications.

Nothing less than this radical level of transformation is also playing out in how we view our inner universe – the human mind. And this paradigm shift in brain science provides us with a portal into a brave new world for leadership development as well.

The human brain has long been viewed as the “command and control center” inside each of us. This mechanistic view has seen the brain as a genetically fixed neural system, fully established by late adolescence, and incapable of being significantly modified throughout our adult lives. Implicit in this model is the belief that a computer-like brain unilaterally drives our conscious mind as well as our actions. In essence this view proclaims that we – the way we think and act – are pre-destined and an inevitable result of the way our brain is hard-wired.

Not unlike the Newtonian description of physical reality, this view is not untrue; but it is, at the same time, not completely true!

The revolution in neuroscience research in the past twenty-five years has completely upended our understanding of how the human brain’s neural pathways are formed, how they interact, and how they are continuously being modified by the impact of our life experiences and the impact of our conscious mind.

The extraordinary ramifications of these discoveries are only just beginning to unfold. But the evidence is already unequivocal: The relationship between the human brain and our mind – our conscious awareness – is an ever-evolving, powerfully dynamic, two-way flow of energy and information.

It is not the hard-wired command and control model we’ve assumed for so many years. In other words, we are not necessarily the prisoner of our mind or of our brain!

We have the ability to consciously change our brain’s neural wiring. We are, in a very real way, the architects of our neural pathways! We influence our neural wiring – whether we’re intentional with it or not – by the way we use our conscious minds. We have choice in the matter of the kind of neural wiring our brain develops. Our brain, in a way, merely reflects the focus of our conscious attention! We can, in fact, be whatever we want to be! And our brain then becomes a subservient ally to support whatever choices we consciously make.

So what does this mean in practical terms for leadership development?

“Regardless of disadvantageous experiences, especially in early life, individuals who truly want to develop their leadership capacity can do so through personal discipline and focused attention”


Perhaps first and foremost: Leaders are not born! They are nurtured to fruition through a combination of life experience and intentional focus of attention. There may be some genetic pre-disposition, but that is not the central factor in the equation. Regardless of disadvantageous experiences, especially early in life, individuals who truly want to develop their leadership capacity can do so through personal discipline and focused attention.

Those of us in the leadership development field intuitively know this – otherwise we wouldn’t have a job! But it is not always easy to convince our clients that they are the “master of their soul.” Now with the recent research in neuroscience, we have hard evidence to show them that they can, in fact, grow and develop into the leader they want to be. This is very encouraging news for those who are drawn, in their hearts, to leadership but are reluctant to believe they have the innate capacity.

Another potential boon from neuroscience is that we now have a pragmatic and empirically grounded roadmap for those “left-brain” leaders to follow as they explore what may feel like the murky territory of emotional and social intelligence – the core soft skills of the Inclusive Leader. Over the past year I have been experimenting with some of the engineering-oriented leaders at GE by introducing emotional and social intelligence to them through a neuroscience framework. The vast majority has been overwhelmingly open to exploring such delicate leadership topics as empathy, compassion and mindfulness. This is very encouraging for me personally to see the potential of this approach!

So what other neuroscience breakthroughs are relevant to leadership development?

  • Non-duality – A Bridge Between Emotion and Rationality
    By understanding that what goes on in our brain – whether it’s our emotions, our thoughts, our judgments, our beliefs, our values, our memory, or our conscious experience – and understanding that they are all the same neural mechanisms working in concert toward one end: self-preservation, leaders can better understand that their emotions are a natural and critical element in all of human decision making. They can learn to manage their emotional reactivity and judgments of situations and others; and they can manage their critical self-talk that undermines their self-confidence and leadership effectiveness. They can also begin to integrate their internal state so that their leadership style is more balanced with equanimity.
  • Memory, Perception & Objectivity
    Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate in economics, describes two selves: the “remembering self” is the one who lives from the sum of our memories of past experience deceptively thinking this is objective reality; then there is the “experiencing self, who does my living [and who] is like a stranger to me.”

    By understanding how the brain integrates and stores our life experiences into a constantly evolving and highly subjective memory, leaders can learn to be more present in the immediate moment and then interpret the world around them more holistically to make better-informed decisions. They can appreciate that even if they have a valuable Point of View, it is a limited and highly biased POV. The POV’s of others may also be critical in creatively working through the complexities of business challenges.

“By understanding how the brain integrates and stores our life experiences into a constantly evolving and highly subjective memory, leaders can learn to be more present in the immediate moment”


  • Our Social Brain – The Inclusive Leader
    Whether we like it or not, we are intensely social animals. In fact, our physical and emotional wellbeing are dependent upon the quality of bond we had with our mothers in the first few years of life. Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist and head of the Mindsight Institute, says that human relationships literally shape the kind of neuronal connections we have in our brain. A particular type of neuron, called “mirror neurons”, discovered only in the last ten years in particular areas of the brain actually track and map the mental state of another person! Human bonds are the glue of the brain as well as for the whole person.

    By understanding how the development and growth of our neural pathways are critically dependent upon human interaction, leaders can enhance their capacity for empathy, compassion, and kindness – critical skills for coaching and for nurturing inspiration, innovation, and growth in others.

  • The Split Brain – The Split Leader
    Neuroscientists have known for many years that the brain is divided into two anatomically distinct hemispheres. And they have known that the left-hemisphere seems to be the dominant force in contemporary human culture. But it’s only in the last few decades that the profound differences in their function have become clear enough to contemplate the broader implications for the continuing existence of the species.

    Iain McGilchrist, says in his fascinating book The Master and His Emissary, “the most fundamental difference between the hemispheres lies in the type of attention they give to the world… How do we understand the world, if there are different versions of it to reconcile? Is it important which models and metaphors we bring to bear on our reality? And, if it is, why has one particular model come to dominate us so badly that we hardly notice its pervasiveness? What do these models tell us about the words that relate us to the world at large – ‘know’, ‘believe’, ‘trust’, ‘want’, ‘grasp’, ‘see’ – that both describe and, if we are not careful, prescribe the relationship we have with it?”

    By understanding the distinct functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain and the inherent contradictive and yet collaborative nature of these two world-views, leaders can better integrate their emotional and social intelligence with the clarity of their rationalistic thinking to be a more holistic leader.

  • Mindfulness as a Leadership Practice
    Jon Kabat-Zinn, a medical doctor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the U.S., has developed a regimen called MBSR (Mind-Based Stress Reduction) – a form of focused mental discipline, or mindfulness practice, that dramatically reduces stress, pain and illness in patients.

    By learning the skills of meditative self-reflection – mindfully focusing their attention on their internal state – leaders can mange the ever-present distractions around them that often derail their effectiveness as leaders. They can also help themselves create the “empty mind” which is essential for creative, innovative, breakthrough thinking.

    “Neuroscience gives us an empirical way for contextualizing and more easily accessing the interpersonal and intrapersonal social skills that are essential for the exemplary leader in the 21st century”


    And so, the dynamic new paradigm that has emerged in brain science during the last twenty-five years offers those of us in leadership development a whole new metaphor for the transformative work we do. Neuroscience gives us an empirical way for contextualizing and more easily accessing the interpersonal and intrapersonal social skills that are essential for the exemplary leader in the 21st century.


  • Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist
  • The Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel
  • Mindsight by Daniel Siegel

* Attributed to Daniel Siegel from his online course, “Inter-Personal Neurobiology”

Jim Shipley solely owns this intellectual property. It may not be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of the author.

About Jim Shipley

Jim Shipley webJim Shipley is a leadership and human development consultant of 23 years based in the Netherlands. He has been on the Corporate Leadership faculty of GE – Europe for the past ten years and also works with other clients including Shell. He has a Masters degree in Neuroscience from Washington University in St. Louis, U.S.A.

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