What makes a good leader? A study published in the Harvard Business Review suggests that it’s less about mastering situations, or even specific social skill sets, and more about brain chemistry, specifically, the neural pathways required to inspire others to be effective.
Social neuroscience, the study of what happens in the brain when people interact, is starting to reveal that certain neural circuits (and related endocrine systems) underpin social intelligence. Whenever you incite positive feelings in other people (a crucial ingredient in being a successful leader), mirror neurons, spindle cells, and oscillators are at work. Here’s a rundown of how it works.
Mirror neurons help us, well, mirror
Mirror neurons are dispersed throughout our brains. They help us navigate our social world. When we detect (either consciously or unconsciously) someone else’s emotions through specific actions, our mirror neurons reproduce those emotions. That’s why when someone smiles or laughs, we usually mirror the same action. Collectively, mirror neurons help to create an instant sense of a shared experience, camaraderie, and connection — all crucial in a highly functioning team.
Bosses who are stiff and humorless rarely engage mirror neurons in team members. But a boss who is warm and laughs fires up mirror neurons, triggering laughter and bonding the team in the process — and a tight-knit team is one that performs well. The Harvard study reports that top-performing leaders elicit laughter from their team three times as often as mid-performing leaders.
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Spindle cells help us make judgements
Great leaders often speak of “trusting their gut” or “following their intuition.” It’s the brain’s spindle cells that make this possible. Spindle cells have extra-long branches, which allow them to rapidly transmit thoughts, feelings, emotions, beliefs, and judgments. They trigger neural networks that are called upon whenever we have to make a decision — even one as mundane as prioritizing a to-do list.
These cells are also what help us get a read on people — for example, to gauge whether someone is the right fit for a job. Even though this information is transmitted in just one-twentieth of a second, follow-up metrics reveal that these “first instinct” judgements are often right on target. Therefore, leaders should feel confident acting on their “gut,” provided that they are also attuned to others’ moods.
Oscillators are all about body language
The brain’s oscillators coordinate people physically. They help regulate how and when bodies move together. You can see oscillators at work when two attuned people dance — it appears as if one body is responding to the other seamlessly.
Great leaders are often animated, using their body language to put others at ease. They shake hands warmly, speak expressively, and move about with both fluidity and control. All of this helps to generate positive feelings in the room. When politicians are criticized for being “stiff,” it’s peoples’ oscillators that are reacting.
Putting this science to work
There’s no quick method to strengthen your mirror neurons, spindle cells, and oscillators. The only way to enhance your social circuitry is to start changing your behavior, effectively training yourself to become more socially intelligent.
One of the more powerful ways to become a socially intelligent leader is to learn directly from role models or mentors. Watch how they interact with their staff — especially how they show empathy and adapt themselves to others’ moods. Study how they conduct themselves in meetings and in 1:1s. Observe how they handle conflict. Note how they carry themselves around the office.
Spending time with a model of effective leadership behavior stimulates our own mirror neurons, allowing us to experience, internalize, and ultimately emulate what we’ve observed. With time and practice, we can end up changing our own brain chemistry to become better leaders.