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A Conversation with David Rock, the man who coined the term “NeuroLeadership”

February 1, 2011

Linkage’s Seth Resler met with David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute at the 2010 Best of Organizational Development Summit. David Rock coined the term “NeuroLeadership” and is the author of several books including Personal Best, Quiet Leadership, and his newest one, Your Brain at Work.

Here is their conversation…

I have heard of neuroeconomics and neuromarketing.  Tell me, what is NeuroLeadership? 

David Rock
David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute

It is a new field. First off, neuroeconomics is really about decision-making involving money and what drives our decisions from the brain perspective. Neuromarketing is very much about influencing—advertising, sales, packaging, and branding.  There was nothing out there about leadership and the brain perspective on leadership, which is about creating vision, getting people onboard, influencing people, organizational change –all of that. NeuroLeadership is really a field devoted to understanding the biology of what is involved in leadership, but also in change management and organizational development as well.

What is the biology behind leadership?

We actually spent the first three Summits talking about that and trying to get the shape of the field. We have come to the conclusion that the neuroscience of leadership is really the neuroscience of four things. First, decision-making and problem-solving; what is the neuroscience behind how we make decisions. The second area is the neuroscience involved in self-regulation; managing yourself and your emotions. The third one is collaborating with others—the neuroscience involved in working in a team and influencing people and working together. And, lastly, the neuroscience involved in facilitating change. In other words, how does creating a vision change the brain, and what is persuasion all about? There are enormous amounts of research within each of those four domains, so we have organized the field into those four blocks—which has been really helpful.

Are there things that leaders’ brains have in common?

Participants at the 2010 Best of OD Summit
Participants at the 2010 Best of OD Summit

A successful leader usually has very strong self-regulation capacity, or they do not succeed because leaders have to deal with enormous amounts of complexity. They have to deal with things that are very stressful so they are usually very good at regulating emotions. They are usually very good at thinking on multiple levels and very good at putting themselves in other people’s shoes. 

So, yes, there is a tendency that effective leaders will usually have very strong prefrontal cortex for cognitive control. They’ll have a strong anterior—so, there are definitely regions that are strong. 

And are these the types of things that you are born with, or are these the things that you can develop?

Well, that’s the big question—it turns out you can improve from a baseline. It is probably 50/50, but you can improve from a baseline. You have to believe that you can improve, and then you do—you can actually improve. You can get better at cognitive control, and it takes practice.

What drives you?  Why research the brain?

My background is more as a practitioner.  I have personally found it unbelievably helpful having a proper theory that had face validity when I was doing any kind of training program. And I didn’t intend to get into the science, but no one else was. I just wrote a paper about how useful I found it, and suddenly, the world started saying, “This is really important, and someone should do something about this.” 

Eventually, what I found was if I was doing a program to build leadership skills, when I had the science, I would get more people signed up for the program. More people actually turned up for the program. More people switched their cell phones off.  More people stayed to the end, and more people experienced richer insight from having the science there. 

As a result, I just wanted to get more and more into the science and start to collaborate with scientists, and the whole idea emerged from, “Let’s get some scientists together and see if we can build a field.” So, I have just been following my interests and following the value, and I have been fortunate enough that I wasn’t an anomaly—that many other people found it tremendously helpful to have a biological explanation of what we do as change practitioners, as leadership practitioners, as OD practitioners. It turns out the biology is really helpful.

Participants at the 2010 Best of OD Summit
Participants at the 2010 Best of OD Summit

And where can I assess my brain online?

That’s still coming.

Oh.  Okay.  I’ll be looking forward to it, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with us.

Dark haired woman watches from audience of conference event

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