EFMD AC15: Tara Swart – Neuroscience for Leadership

FullSizeRender 3At the 2015 Annual EFMD Conference in Brussels, Tara Swart gave an introduction to key concepts from neuroscience that can improve leadership and lead to high performance in teams and organisations. Ms Swart is a former medical doctor and has a PhD in Neuroscience. She is also CEO of The Unlimited Mind and a professor at MIT, Stanford and the University of Oxford. She began by telling the audience the neuroplasticity is one of the most exciting things to come out of research in the pas few years and hoped that at the end of the talk hoped that the brains of the audience would be transformed.

One of the reasons we know more about the brain in the past few years is because of the improvements in technology. Brain scanning has done a lot but we do have to be careful about conclusions we might draw.

The most fundamental thing to know is that the brain / body connection. The physical condition of your body is directly related to your ability to concentrate and to think and learn. If you are tired and hungry, this will have an impact on you ability to think. To stimulate change you have to engage people emotionally. When we know that something is right we do not always act. However, when we feel that something is right there is a much greater probability that we will do something.

The two parts of the brain are linked by connectors. However, there are four times more of these than in the female brain than in the male brain. This gives women a better capacity to link different type of information.

FullSizeRender (4)“The female brain is a super highway. The male brain is a country road with lots of pot homes in it” joked Ms Swart.

Previous generations were willing to sacrifice many things for job security. Today, the younger generation are more likely to be inspired by getting an iPad as part of the remuneration package than getting some form of security.

For a long time the notion of “Intuition” had a poor image in the domain of neuroscience. Since we have been able to scan the brain, we have discovered that the gut part of the human body has an important role in our learning cycle.

Hebbian Learning

In fact, we learn through a process called Hebbian Learning named after the neuroscientist, Donald Hebb. There is a limit to the amount of neurons we can store in the logical, cortex part of our brain. As something becomes more of a pattern the neurons form together and are pushed into the limbic centre of the brain. When you feel that something is right but cannot explain why it could be based on past experiences and a chemical reaction within your body.

It is necessary to have a well-balanced approach. If you are seen as being high on logical intelligence there is a 14% chance that you will be successful as a leader. If you are seen as being high on emotion intelligence you have a 12% chance of being a great leader. If you are seen to be good at both, you have a 72% chance of being a good leader. Only about 1% of people though are seen as being good at both.

There are no real short cuts in neuroscience to this which of course include regular exercise. There is a myth that woman are good at multi tasking. In fact, this makes as all less efficient. However, you can train yourself to task switch and be both empathetic and logical at the same time.

Why is it important to understand learning?

Why is it important to understand learning? We are now on the brink of being able to make major break through in learning. In fact, learning and adapting may become much more important than technical skills.

Anything new to the brain is treated as being dangerous. Physiological stress generates the same feelings as physical pain. However, we do not treat it in the same way. Stress can be constant in the business world. When stress is generated the brain thinks it is about to die and sucks the blood down and goes into survival mode. Ms Swart pointed out that in one of the banks she consults for, they have had 24 heart attack deaths in the past year. These all occurred on the trading floor where levels of stress are extremely high.

There are some remedies and this starts with doing regular exercise. You can physically sweat your stress away. 98-99% of human beings also need 6 to 8 hours of sleep per day. This is the time required to do the cleaning process.

You also need to eat at regular intervals. You brain is 5% of your body weight but uses 25% of the glucose. It cannot store the glucose so you need to eat regularly.  Mindfulness can be very beneficial to learning and your own personal development. It also helps people to train themselves to regulate their emotions. Freezing and then warming up the body can be good for this.

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