#leadership #leadershipdevelopment #futureleader #neuroscience #coaching #focus

By Mia Kollia
Translated by Alexandros Theodoropoulos

In a contemporary and complex workplace, leadership and the role of the leader bring with them burdens and difficult tasks. Numerous recent studies in neuroscience show that we focus on many ways at once and for different purposes, while drawing on different neural pathways - some of which work together whereas others tend to contradict each other.

We can group these ways of focusing into three main categories:

1. focusing on ourselves
2. focusing on other people
3. focusing on the wider world.

Each category cultivates and develops different parts in order to improve our ability to know ourselves better, to understand our workforce, and to improve our strategic planning and innovation skills.

1. Focusing on ourselves

- Self-knowledge

Contact with our inner voice and the development of emotional intelligence can lead us to connect with our true selves and make better decisions. The neurological center that makes this process possible is located on the temporal lobe and has to do with the monitoring of subtle indications associated with the internal signals of our physiology. By choosing to tune in to our bodies, to our heartbeats and to be open to their messages, we consolidate the appropriate background of faith in our intuition, so that we can work in better conditions and contact with our inner self.

In interviews with investment bank executives, British researchers concluded that executives who listened well to the messages of their inner selves and bodies were much more successful than those who relied solely on figures.

- Self-control (Cognitive control)

Scientifically, this term is used to describe the process of intentionally selecting our thoughts, emotions and behaviours and keeping our attention without being distracted. This is an aspect of the executive function of the brain, which is located in the prefrontal cortex and is better known as will power. 

Good cognitive control can be developed with practice and is observed in people who remain calm in a crisis, tame their own turmoil and recover quickly from a defeat. Executives who can effectively focus on their desired goals emerge as natural leaders regardless of their organisational skills.

The key to our success in this field is the ability to choose to use self-control instead of self-satisfaction where’s necessary. There are 3 key skills at this point:

- to voluntarily release our focus from the object of desire
- to resist possible distractions
- to focus on the future goal(s)


2. Focusing on other people

- Empathy

Executives who can effectively focus on others are easy to identify. They are the ones who find common ground, whose views carry the most weight and with whom other people want to work. They will soon gain some leadership positions.

We often talk about empathy as a unique trait. But a closer look at where leaders focus when they show empathy reveals 3 different types, each being equally important for leadership effectiveness.

- Cognitive empathy: the ability to understand another person's point of view.

Cognitive empathy is a consequence of self-knowledge. Executive parts that allow us to think of our own thoughts and monitor the emotions that flow from them allow us to apply the same reasoning to the minds of others when we choose to focus on these points.

- Emotional empathy: the ability to feel what someone else is feeling.

Emotional empathy is important for effective leadership, customer management and reading team dynamics. It stems from the amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex, which allow us to feel fast without thinking too much and coordinate us with the emotional states of others.

- Empathy: the ability to feel what the other person needs from us.
Empathy has its roots in the function that drives parents' attention to their children and is closely related to emotional empathy. It enables us to feel not only in the way that other people feel but also to really understand what they need from us. Research has shown that proper application of empathy is crucial in making ethical decisions in the midst of crises.

- Relationship building

Creating good relationships requires complete cooperation from different parts of our brain. The anterior hippocampus can quickly "read" for us the social condition we are in and lead us intuitively to the appropriate behavior. Social conditions where we are usually called to adapt can be a friendly company or our family environment or a meeting at work.  

New research reveals that the rise of our careers can make us less open, attentive and obedient to other people. However, top executives should find the best way to take advantage of the full range of ideas and talents on offer at a company or an organisation.   

3. Focusing on the wider world

- Strategy

Every introductory strategy course at a business school teaches that the two key elements to developing a strategy are leveraging your existing corporate strengths and exploring the field for new, future benefits.

MRI scans of high-level executives in the field have linked specific and different areas of the brain to these two different approaches: dealing with current conditions requires concentration at work, while exploration requires awareness to identify new possibilities.

When executives deal with the given conditions, the brain feels the security of a familiar routine. But when we enter the phase of exploring something new, we must make a deliberate cognitive effort to disengage from this routine and follow new paths.

- Innovation 

At a time when almost everyone has access to the same information, new values will emerge through the gathering of ideas in original ways and the development of untapped potential. A classic model of creativity (a necessary component of innovation) includes the stage of preparation, where we gather a large amount of relevant information, the stage of dedication, where we process the issue while being very concentrated, and the stage of wandering, where we allow our thoughts to move freely.

In order to be able to think creatively about new strategic opportunities, we need to overcome the most common obstacles: sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, stress and mental overload. We need a period of rest to renew our focus on these new fields.

Combining these three factors

The message is clear. In order to be complete and modern leaders, we need to be in touch with our inner feelings, to be able to control our impulses, to be aware of how others see us, to understand what others need from us, to be able to ignore possible distractions and to be able to allow our mind to roam freely, without prejudice.  

This is a great challenge indeed. If active and effective leadership was something easy, we would be used to seeing many more great leaders around us. What is needed is not so much talent as diligence - willingness to practice the parts of the brain just as we practice our analytical skills and other requirements of our work. The relationship between attention and excellence remains hidden most of the time. However, attention is the basis of the most essential leadership skills; emotional, organisational and strategic intelligence.