NeuroLeadership: Knowing Oneself to Lead Better

Neuroleadership, perched at the intersection of neuroscience and management, has much to offer future leaders by making behavior more predictable. Through the Leadership Discovery Process, the Copenhagen MBA class of 2020 gained insight in this interesting field, writes Prajakta Patil.

Coming from an emerging market like India, when I decided to do my MBA it was definitely for a lot of the usual reasons – building my toolbox, sharpening the edges after over a decade of working, making a career switch, and learning from a diverse class in an international and developed economy. But these reasons could have made me apply to any good business school across the globe. So, why did I decide to do my MBA at Copenhagen Business School? Everyone familiar with the MBA market would promptly mention the focus on sustainable business practices and sustainability as the reason. My classmates and I agreed with this up until we started the program. The curriculum introduced us to another subject – the Leadership Discovery Process, or LDP for short. We knew LDP to be a key pillar of the Copenhagen MBA since we had heard and read about the mysterious week-long outdoor stint in Sweden, but we did not really gauge the significance of the course. It has been one and a half months since we embarked on our MBA journey and I can confidently say this: Copenhagen Business School has two unique propositions; Sustainable Business Practices and the Leadership Discovery Process.

The Leadership Discovery is an individual journey designed to define our personal effective leadership style. While all of us have, in some form, displayed as well as experienced leadership in our careers to date, the LDP will introduce us to the detailed theory behind effective leadership and translate this learning into concrete action and behavior, especially in demanding situations. It is a first and foremost a journey of self-discovery, because only when you know yourself well can you lead others towards a shared vision.

Neuroscience introduces us to an interesting leadership proposal: Getting to know ourselves better, first as a person (how we perceive ourselves as well as others), then as a leader so we can guide and coach from a place of self-awareness. Because the biggest roadblock in our journey of leadership discovery is SELF. NeuroLeadership helps us identify the obstacles and systematically work on overcoming them.

Our brain and biases

The two sides of the brain according to Daniel Kahneman

In his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Daniel Kahneman describes two sides of our brain. System 1, the oldest part, is responsible for all that is prerecorded over millions of years of evolution. This part of our brain manages quick responses, snap judgements and intuition, relying largely on instinct. System 1 is also emotional and unconscious which makes most of our daily life easy and effortless. Imagine if you had to learn to do basic math like 3+4=7, react to a horror movie scene or drive on an empty road every single day? It would have been exhausting. Thank God for the System 1 brain! System 2, on the other hand, is very new in our history of evolution. This is where most of our daily work happens, whether it is solving a tricky analytical question, searching for an address in a locality or parking in a tight space.

Since the old brain is so well-trained, we often rely on it to do most of our work, even tasks that might require some of our thought process. Since we might have faced a similar situation in the past, we consider it for a brief amount of time and draw from our earlier experiences very quickly. This approach could help in the performance of routine tasks, but most often than not, this method might draw from our biases. Merriam-Webster defines bias as ‘an inclination of temperament or outlook especially; a personal or sometimes unreason judgement’. Wikipedia lists over 100 of these cognitive biases that affect our sound judgement and actions. Different people look at things differently and might have completely different ways of doing things. Our biases make it tricky to make impartial decisions.


Perceived threat or reward response model developed by David Rock and adapted from Evian Gordon.

This figure shows how we react to a perceived threat or reward. Both of these circumstances create chemicals in our body that either make us resist or engage with a particular situation. A brain-based model – SCARF, developed by David Rock, can explain the domains of social experience that might influence the threat and reward perception. Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe. And Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.1 Labelling and understanding these drivers help us design interactions to minimize threat as well as activate a reward response to motivate others more effectively as a leader.

The field of NeuroLeadership is a definitely at the intersection of neuroscience and management and has much to offer by making behavior more predictable. While it might be perceived as soft science, it is definitely based on some hard data and defined metrics. Being a good leader need not be termed as a trait for only the charismatic orator. In fact, with fields like neuroscience, leadership can be learnt, practiced and imbibed through a leadership discovery process.

Prajakta was born and raised in Mumbai, before moving to Copenhagen in search of bigger challenges, a broader mindset, and a new ecosystem to thrive in.