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General Interest Reading

A Brain Scientist Explains Leadership

by Saj-nicole Joni

Neurobiology helps tell us why executives screw up--and what they do to avoid it.

While it's not clear just how many different ways the once-praised Mark Hurd may have blown it at Hewlett-Packard, blow it he most scandalously did. Flying high, undone by his own bravado, he fell Icarus-like to Earth. And he is hardly alone. In the past few months we've seen other stunning departures including those of Tony Hayward from BP and Colleen Goggins from Johnson & Johnson.

How can high-flying leaders keep from crashing? After all, not every leader plummets. What insight can recent advances in science offer to boards and executives who want their most important people to win, not flame out? For answers, I sought out Dr. Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University biological anthropologist whose research delves into brain chemistry. I asked her what brain science has to say about the risks of bad judgment at the top--and what steps executives can take to fend off disaster.

Q. Can you briefly explain the connection between brain chemistry and personality?

A. Basically, your personality consists of your character, which includes traits acquired through your experiences, and your temperament, which is traits arising from your biology.

We have evolved four primary types of biological temperament, each associated with a range of traits.

The personality type that I call

the "Explorer" is primarily expressive of dopamine;
the "Director" is expressive of testosterone,
the "Builder" is expressive of serotonin, and
the "Negotiator" is expressive of estrogen and oxytocin.

All these temperament types are found in both men and women and in every culture and race.

Q. I suspect that the leaders at the highest risk of making really dumb mistakes have a strong mix of Director and Explorer traits.
     Why? What happens in the brain to put Director-Explorers at risk?

A. Director-Explorers tend to be daring, direct, decisive, analytical, strategic, independent, tough-minded, focused and assertive--characteristics that make them candidates to become chief executive officers. They are more demanding and often less empathetic than others. This is an expression of their testosterone and dopamine temperaments.

It's important to note that, contrary to early thinking, testosterone can play a large role in women's chemistry, not just men's. There are plenty of successful women who share the Director-Explorer temperament--for example,

Hurd's predecessor, Carly Fiorina,
Martha Stewart,
Condoleezza Rice and
Hillary Clinton.

When people win -- in the office, in sports or, for example, at chess -- testosterone is released. With repeated wins, the additional testosterone often triggers the dopamine system, which characterizes Explorers. This increases creativity and energy, but it also heightens risk-taking and novelty-seeking.

And certainly the bubble-like environment that encases top executives doesn't help. If you're surrounded by sycophants and have all the money in the world, sooner or later you'll begin to think you're infallible. To make matters worse, a new force steps in: habit. As you get used to breaking the rules, you become desensitized to your own inappropriate behavior. Some CEOs even seem shocked when they're caught, because their behavior has become so habitual.

Q. So you're saying that at a biological level, winning spurs you on to even greater creativity and drive--but over time big wins and heightened success also trigger a type of brain chemistry that can make you vulnerable. You can miss the big picture, including external warning signals that your ideas and choices may be leading you into trouble.

A. Yes, especially if you're a leader who exhibits the Director-Explorer temperament.

Q. But people are not helpless in the face of their own biology. I've worked with many top executives who share the characteristics you describe, but they don't get into trouble, in part because they have built very effective inner circles. They have key people who help them to pause, reflect and face reality, even when doing so is unpleasant or even painful.

A. That's excellent. I think executives should always work with someone like Shakespeare's wise fool: a truly informed, neutral referee whose judgment they respect and who has both the courage and the permission to tell it like it is.

You are also correct that we are not slaves to our biology. We are not puppets on a string of DNA. We can and do break bad habits. Thanks to neuroplasticity, our brains are always changing. Think about the alcoholic who stops drinking. Over time, in the absence of alcohol, new neural pathways form, and the brain rebuilds itself. So as you become more powerful, you need to be very thoughtful about what neural pathways you build and reinforce. Your temperament will send you one way, but that's not your only option.

Leaders such as
Doug Conant at Campbell,
Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo and
Bayer's former CEO Rolf Classon
constantly expand their curiosity, improve their comportment and refuse to get lost in the bubble.

Q. You are suggesting that they are building more than strong character--they are also building better leadership brains. And that this has the potential to determine the top players who will win and sustain, not flame out. What suggestions would you have for leaders who want to do likewise?

A. First, prepare yourself before your bad habits separate you from reality, by learning about your own natural assets, temperament and vulnerabilities.

Second, seek to balance your achievements with a look at your failures.

Third, always have a plan to develop new range in your work.

Fourth, ask your employees to send you anonymous comments about your behavior.

And finally, ground yourself regularly, with exercise and meditation, or with direct service, like spending time each month quietly serving in a soup kitchen.

Be clear that you are doing the latter not for the sake of a photo op but for the sake of your brain and your capacity to lead.

In the end, the most important thing for executives to remember is this: The sooner you start building a better brain, knowing what biology has dealt you, the more likely you are to lead to your fullest capacity and sustain that leadership over time. Your company and your community are counting on you.

About the Author: Saj-nicole Joni, chief executive of Cambridge International Group, is a confidential advisor to CEOs and top executives worldwide. Her most recent book is The Right Fight, co-authored with Damon Beyer (HarperCollins, 2010).


As they say, power can corrupt, and absolute power can corrupt absolutely. One needs a strong moral compass, and I'm startled none of my formal education systematically addressed developing this. - Anil

Anil, I am with you. Power inflates ego and the person forgets that the foundation of his power is the organization. He thinks the power is his and races to the bottom if he is completely unaware of the foundation.

Yes, one needs a strong moral compass to show him the N all the time.

Formal education is all about equations, laws of static materials, forces and torques etc. They have no analogues in real life. All of us have to learn this outside the school.

But I feel , in a way, we are also responsible for the kind of education. I wonder how many of us actively took interest in humanities, history, psychology during IIT days. Most of us ridiculed such subjects.



Agreed Dilip, and very well said! Especially the part about our own individual responsibility in developing our own moral compass: one shies away from that hard edge at one's own peril.

Speaking for myself, I wish this realization had hit me (as fully as it has now) much earlier in my life..... I would have done fewer stupid things. As you say, the seat of power (what there is) lies in the organization, and is not imbedded in the person.



Dilip and Anil

As you both have mentioned. Power is not internal -- it is external. People or organizations give you power. And, they can take it away. It is very apparent in the elections coming up. Actually today.

The irony is that people who acquire the power by the people start oppressing the same people.

Well I guess once people make us powerful it goes to our head and we believe they cannot do without us not realizing that people do fine without anyone.


See Also:

Servant Leadership: The Parable of Brother Leo
Another model of leadership, where leaders are preoccupied with serving rather than being followed, with giving rather than getting, with doing rather than demanding. Leadership based on example, not command. This is called servant leadership.

6 Managerial Styles You Need to Lead Effectively
Far too many managers are “one-trick-ponies.” Early in their careers they had success with one management style and now use it regardless of the situation. The result: They lack the skills necessary to handle the complexities of managing people.

3 Ways to Manage Clashing Leadership Styles
While managing the tension can be challenging, working with someone who has a different approach than you, can often yield innovation and creativity. Here are three ways to make the most of differing styles:

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