Leadership Neuroscience

Using neuroplasticity for leadership 

One of my strongest memories from high school is of the one and only time I was called to the Principal’s office. I had been called there because, unbeknownst to me, one of my ‘friends’ had been overheard threatening to ‘rough me up’. Also unbeknownst to me, another of my friends had witnessed this conversation and had pushed my would-be attacker against a locker and threatened her thoroughly and with gusto. The Principal’s perspective on this was that my defender probably didn’t know any better but that I certainly did. She asked me to be mindful of who I hung around with and the kind of influence I had over them.

This incident struck me as exceedingly unfair. I had no control over what other people did or said, how could I possibly be expected to control something that I had no part in, wasn’t physically present for and didn’t even know was happening?

Little did I know that this experience would set me up pretty well for the role of leadership.

Fast forward about 15 years and I once again found myself responsible for the actions and behaviours of someone else. This time, I was visiting a senior executive’s office, cap in hand, to apologise for a mistake that had been made by someone in my team, against my instructions and in my absence. This time, the unfairness of it all, albeit still present, seemed to be less of an issue. I was, after all, the manager of this team. It was my job to prevent these kinds of mistakes from happening.

But how realistic is this? And to what extent can people change, if at all?

Our capacity to change using neuroplasticity

For many years’ neuroscientists and psychologists would have argued that adults’ capacity for change is limited by a fixed and largely static brain. Children, on the other hand, were thought to have brains that were plastic, ever-changing learning machines absorbing information and re-wiring themselves at will.  Did you know that you can remove half of an infant’s brain and have that child grow up largely unaffected? Or that children who acquire a second language will perform to the same level as native speakers, while adults may never reach this level of fluency?

To a large extent, the differences between adults and children were believed to be because of the way our brains develop. We are born with around 100 billion neurons in our brains. As we experience the world and learn to understand it, connections form between these neurons and by the age of two, the average infant will have formed around 1000 trillion connections. These connections continue to form throughout childhood, supporting the child’s development and learning. Then during adolescence, the brain goes through a period of consolidation and massive neural pruning. Many of the least commonly used neurons in our brains die off causing us to lose around 50% or 500 trillion connections.

Changing views on neuroplasticity

This pruning is thought to make our brains more efficient but was also believed to ‘fix’ our brain’s development at this point. It was once thought that from this point on, people didn’t really change, that learning became more difficult and that adults needed to be taught in different ways to children. This is consistent with the view that personality and intelligence don’t really change across the course of a person’s life, and is consistent with fairly pessimistic views about the possibility of recovery from things like stroke, mental illness and other forms of brain damage or disorder.

Lucky for us (and for my employees), science has moved on quite a bit and we now believe that human beings’ capacity for change and growth far exceeds anything we previously imagined.

There is now a growing body of evidence to suggest that adult brains are in fact plastic and that with the right technique and a good amount of persistence and effort, adults can rewire their brains to achieve startling results. For example, in 1992 Dr Jeffrey Schwartz taught individuals suffering from OCD to change the way they thought about and responded to the symptoms of their disorder (e.g. relabel obsessions and compulsions as false alarms or misleading information, reattribute these symptoms to hyperactivity in specific brain circuits, revalue the unwanted thoughts as not important or not wanted and refocus their attention away from their symptoms and towards a specific, desired and constructive behaviour).

With ten weeks of practice and considerable effort, Schwartz’s patients demonstrated a significant reduction in their symptoms and reported feeling that they had control over their disorder – a remarkable change for individuals who had felt completely enslaved by their symptoms. Perhaps even more remarkable though, Schwartz was able to demonstrate a change in the physical functioning of these patients’ brains over the same ten-week period. It seemed as though the repeated, persistent and effortful application of will and attention had not only changed their experience of OCD but had also changed the underlying brain processes associated with the disorder.

Similarly, in the 1970’s Barbara Arrowsmith-Young developed a series of cognitive exercises to treat her own debilitating ‘mental block’. Although Barbara had almost perfect recall, she was unable to understand the meaning of symbols. She couldn’t understand what the hands of a clock represented or interpret this representation in order to tell the time, she couldn’t understand the difference between ‘the boy chases the dog’ and ‘the dog chases the boy’, she read and wrote from right to left and she would swap letters and numbers around. Frustrated by her situation and inspired by the work of Luria and Rozenweig (neuroscientists), she devised a series of cognitive exercises (flashcards with clock faces on them) and spent eight hours a day practicing these exercises, almost to the point of exhaustion. Barbara overcame her ‘mental block’ and went on to complete a masters degree in school psychology, publish a book, and founded 35 schools in Canada and the US. These schools use a series of exercises to boost 19 cognitive functions and help kids that have been diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, dyslexia and dysgraphia return to mainstream schooling.

Other neuroplastic treatments have been devised for things like loss of function following a stroke, depression, addiction, other learning disabilities, and even some forms of blindness and deafness. Similarly, research evidence has continued to build that demonstrates that characteristics such as intelligence and personality is malleable and can be changed as a result of our environment and our experiences.

Using neuroplasticity for leadership in the workplace

This research suggests that humans are far more malleable than we have ever given them credit for. With the right amount of effort and practice, it should be infinitely possible to change my leaders' and employees’ behaviour. Importantly, these changes don’t come easily. They require repeated application of will and effortful practice. This is an idea that is consistent with the work of Angela Duckworth who shows that the secret ingredient in success is grit - or passion and persistence - rather than skill, talent or ability.

So, it would seem that my employees are less limited by things like capability, aptitude and ability, and are more limited by the choices I and they make about where we will invest our effort and attention. In a world that is so frenetically busy and so full of distractions, this leads me to wonder what opportunities for growth and achievement are being missed because we are too busy or because we quit too early.

It also makes me wonder what talents I and my employees could develop with the right amount of motivation and persistence?

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Written by:

Dr Kelley Yates 

Kelley Yates
Kelley Yates


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