Even while being aware of the stereotypes of bad leadership our brains’ natural tendency to replicate learned behaviours means that anyone who has experienced a bad boss can also run the risk of repeating their mistakes. Fortunately, a few simple, conscious reminders can help executives learning to lead to avoid the traps set by their unconscious minds, and develop an authentic leadership style that is all their own.
1. Assess your behaviour objectively
“Leaders think they know what good leadership looks like based on their encounters with people they’ve worked for,” says Dr Jacqui Grey, European Managing Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute. The risk is that memorable experiences could have been extremely negative.
It’s important to give new leaders opportunities to assess their behaviour objectively. At luxury car manufacturer Bentley, behavioural values define how individuals should strive to perform, explains Dr Ariane Reinhart, Member of the Board for HR. “This is incorporated into the employee appraisal process and underpinned by our people framework,” she says. Such frameworks can force leaders to consciously consider their performance in terms of coercion, reward and inspiration. At Bentley, Reinhart says: “A team leader should be a role model who uses their expertise in their area to lead and inspire others.”
2. Break free of stereotypical leadership behaviours
Because the brain looks for patterns, we are more comfortable doing “something we have seen, heard or experienced before”, says Grey. This is why breaking free from stereotypical leadership behaviours marks out a good leader from an average or poor one Grey explains. “The brain constantly perceives situations in terms of threat or reward, even in the boardroom,” she says. “It is important to learn what triggers you [to become] stressed, and to recognise these triggers in your people too, so that you can predict their likely responses, and modify your behaviour.”
Threat responses can cause people to feel stressed, flooding their body with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that impair decision-making and can be debilitating over sustained periods, especially if people are not conscious of the precise cause of their discomfort. The most common catalysts for a threat response are challenges to a person’s status or autonomy, removing a sense of purpose, and uncertainty or a sense of unfairness. Avoid those, and you avoid the stress.
3. Stop believing you can read minds
Where you work can have a bearing on whether your team will challenge what you say, warns Kai Peters, Chief Executive of Ashridge Business School. “When you are senior you tend to get surrounded by a lot of ‘yes’ men and women,” he says. “Northern Europeans are better at cutting people down to size, but in the Middle East, China, Latin America and southern Europe, there is a lot of kowtowing to the boss. Leaders lose perspective because nobody questions what they are doing.”
To balance this, leaders can try seeking out opinion from employees two levels below them. Peters says: “Direct reports will tell you what you want to hear. But those at the level below will keep you grounded and point out what’s happening, what is going wrong and whether you are part of the problem.”
4. Keep fit to think clearly
Keeping yourself and your brain healthy will build personal resilience and enhance decision-making capability and effectiveness. Like any part of the body, an overworked brain will perform poorly, and Grey says basic needs such as proper sleep, regular exercise and time for quiet thought or reflection should be given greater importance in the leadership toolkit. “The prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that controls logical thinking – is involved in problem-solving, decision-making and social behaviour. Once it is overloaded or we are stressed, it shuts down. The limbic system, the larger, animal part of the brain, takes over and we can often lose our ability to think, or make coherent contributions or decisions.”
As a result, it pays to remember that all leaders must be ‘fit to lead’ in more ways than one.