The Leader’s Brain, by Michael Platt

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is leaders-brain.jpeg Why this book: Selected by the SEAL reading group I’m in – suggested by my friend Jay.  I also listened to a podcast discussion with the author and was impressed.

Summary in 3 Sentences: The author takes a neurologists look at our DNA and the role it plays in how a leader influences others to work together to perform at their best at a common mission.  There are certain aspects of being human that impacts how we are motivated, and how we respond to others – especially leaders – in driving our behavior.  He covers the social dimension, communications, team building, decision making, creativity, and concludes with a look at the future of how brain science will affect business and leadership.

My Impressions:  Very interesting perspective on Leadership – from the perspective of a neurologist who is looking at the role that human DNA and our basic humanity play in what we would call good leadership.  This book could also be a companion volume to The Extended Mind – it’s shorter, but its conclusions are very much in harmony.  While he notes that some people have genetic advantages in some of these positive influencers that seem to lead to effective leadership, he notes that we can pay attention to them and improve how we interact with and influence others.

Of course, much of the book is about our genetically driven social impulses – what he calls our social brain network –  and many of the unconscious behaviors that affect how people respond to us.  Much of the reseearch upon which he bases his findings was done not just with humans, but also with monkeys and other animals – to help identify how our shared DNA drives certain behaviors, and he provides some fascinating examples of how our distant cousins in the animal world reflect similar behaviors as we  humans.  All of us – humans and animals – are trying to succeed in the environments we find our selves, socially as well as biologically – all in the interest of survival and reproduction..

His point that most resonated with the SEALs was the importance of how we relate to people as a key component of effective leadership.  He offers neuro-hacks and techniques for getting people to believe you follow you, connect with you – all key components of leadership.  The book gives techniques for winning “hearts and minds” of subordinates with cues and techniques that are related to our innate neurological responses and our “social brain network.”   He also talks about the “group identification effect” and the implicit bias we all have against members of outside groups.  If we believe someone is not part of our group, we tend to distrust them and find it more challenging to collaborate with them.

He also discusses the “mirror neuron system” – an instinctive impulse to copy or do what we see others are doing and how such physical synchrony develops a bond with the person we are copying. Subtly copying the movements of other people is wired into our brains to support establishment of rapport and connection – a nonverbal signal of trust and support.  Also, eye contact activates our social brain network – people naturally respond (often unconsciously) to eye contact – and depending on context,  eye contact can bring people together, or drive them away.

His research indicates that “the more power (real or perceived) you have, the less attention you pay to others, especially those of lower status….it turns down the activity in your social brain, making you less attentive and thereby, less likely to take the perspective of others. We all recognized this as something that leaders need to be aware of and combat against.

The book includes a great chapter on team building and how to create a team identity – to hack into the brain’s natural impulses to build trust and alignment. He offers different tactics and strategies to get people aligned and collaborating.   He notes that when we have a strong connection to people around us, patterns of neuronal activity become aligned as we naturally get into physical synchrony.  Physical synchrony is an indicator of a strong team.  Synchronized heart rates strongly are associated with group flow.

The book includes a whole chapter on how to communicate in such a way that prime’s the listener or audience to accept and respond to the speaker’s message.  Methods such as story telling, simplicity of message, linking your message to “high arousal” and voice pitch are important. He explains how and why in-person speaking is more effective than online, text, or zoom.  He notes that feedback is always more impactful if the person asks for it, than when it is offered unsolicited.

His chapter on Innovation and creativity was particularly interesting.  He noted that we reflect a similar tendency he’s seen in animals. Some animals will tend to look for food in the same area, optimizing their exploitation of the area they are in and familiar with. Others of the same species are more ready to explore other areas – he calls these foragers.  The foragers represent the most innovative and creative, the optimizers/exploiters are the more stable and predictable. These have there analogs with humans – those who prefer to stay with and exploit the familiar; those who get bored quickly and are anxious to try new things – the innovators.

The chapter on innovation also notes that we can’t be very creative if we are task-focussed.  He gives us a new word: “frontoparietal attention network” that supports focus and routine task performance.  This is in contrast to the “default mode network” which we are in when we are relaxed, and in this mode, our minds wander and allow new ideas to emerge, and giving room for new ideas and creative impulses to arise.

HIs chapter “Decision Making” offers a simple five step taxonomy of decision making;

  1. Sense your options
  2. Weigh the evidence
  3. Consider the value of the options
  4. Make a choice and take action
  5. Evaluate the outcome – and this includes evaluating what another decision might have rendered.

He states that accurate decisions typically require more time, that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy in decision making  – which is not completely supported by Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. He also discusses the paradox of choice – more and more options to choose from, can frequently paralyze us.  Easy to choose between chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, but give us a choice of 55 different flavors of ice cream and our decision making process can get overwhelmed.

He concludes the book with a fascinating chapter “The Future of Brain Science in Business” and looks at how Brain-Computer Interface mechanisms are being developed to enhance our access to knowledge and other interesting applications of neuroscience to how well we think and interact with each other.

This short book (106 pages) is a different perspective, and a valuable one, for anyone trying to better understand leadership – what works, what doesn’t, and why.


POST SCRIPT Michael Platt spoke on a Cleveland Guardians Speakers series and the show notes are a useful addendum to my book review;

Make time for social interaction – Leadership is about connections and relationships.

  • Google’s Project Oxygen reinforces the value of relationships in their study of what made great managers. 
    • The 10 Oxygen behaviors of Google’s best managers (behaviors 3 and 6 have been updated and behaviors 9 and 10 are new):
      • Is a good coach
      • Empowers team and does not micromanage
      • Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being
      • Is productive and results-oriented
      • Is a good communicator — listens and shares information
      • Supports career development and discusses performance
      • Has a clear vision/strategy for the team
      • Has key technical skills to help advise the team
      • Collaborates across Google
      • Is a strong decision maker

Human Brains wired to connect

    •  Unlike any other animal; humans are able to create and build together – cooperate
    • Social Brain Network is tasked with connecting
    • Facial muscles enable us to connect and show emotions
    • Connection leads to resonance => Empathy
    •  People who have more friends have a bigger social brain network
    •  The more you use it, the better (use of lose)
      • So whether it is at the farmers market or coffee shop – even small talk can strengthen your Social Brain Network
    •  Clear msg, if you want to get the most out of any interaction, you need to devote your attention and presence to your team
  • Looking at your phone under table (texting)….is like having a bag on your head
  • Consider a phone jail / basket – give your team, family, friend, 100% of your attention

Our Brains need breaks 

  • Taking breaks allows your brain to return to the Default-Mode Network – aka, the innovation engine.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion depends on social brains

  • Opportunities and challenges in MLB
  • Color can lead to implicit bias
    • Unfortunately, the research on the benefit of Implicit Bias Training concludes that there has been very little improvement
    • The research demonstrates that there seems to be a disconnect with what we report and what is actually happening in the brain
  • Videos “Needle to face”.  Michael shared the research of a study that asked participants to view needles injected into the faces of both Caucasian and Chinese individuals
    • Contrary to self-reporting, FMRI study demonstrates a high empathy for watching the video of people of the same race; and extremely low empathy for other race.
    • Similar studies demonstrate the same behavior in rats

GOOD NEWS – How to Hack the brain for Brain Empathy

  •  Being the same team boosted empathy
  • Whenever we can, leaders need to find ways to emphasize “on same team”
  • Counterpart to empathy is perspective taking – mental model
    • Putting yourself in someone else’s’ shoes
  •  Lamp commercial.  Why do we feel bad for the lamp?
  • Taking perspective makes you more effective in sales, coaching, etc
  •  Flatten the hierarchy can also lead to increased empathy 

Teams and synchrony

  •  Heart beat together; breathing together => increase in productivity
  • Tools to build synchrony in Teams
    •  Story telling synchronizes
    • Mirroring – Builds trust
    • Eye contact
    • 1 on 1 conversations with 100% focus (not distracted by phone)

Breakout Questions

Breakout Gems

  • Case Western Professor, Ellen VanOosten shared her “1 – hour of mandatory Fun” exercise” where students in her MBA class are partnered up and part of their assignment is to spend 1 hour together on something fun.  The only runes are that they can’t have any discussion of work / school 
    • So, while the students usually roll their eyes and grumble with the assignment, by the end of the course, the course reviews tell a far different story.  Students share how impactful the exercise was in building a strong team.
  • UPENN Professor Charline Russo shared one of here favorite “empathy exercises” with her question, “…tell me about your shoes; where they have been, why you picked them today?”

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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