Five Provocative Ideas about Leadership & the Brain

I'm reporting live from Boston, where about 250 neuroscientists and leadership experts are gathered for the 5th annual NeuroLeadership Summit.  The crowd is a heady mix of folks who are equal parts charismatic and nerdy, and there is a palpable excitement about this growing field.  Here are five ideas that captured my imagination on the first day of this 3-day gathering. 1.  Group brainstorming can stifle insight (Jonathan Schooler, UCSB) Conventional wisdom says that the best way to generate lots of ideas is to bring a group together and ask them to brainstorm.  Schooler's research shows that group conversation can actually disrupt creative solutions.  Once a team member projects his or her interpretation onto the situation at hand, it is very hard for the others to see outside of the construct their teammate has created.  For maximum creativity, ask people to first solve the problem on their own, and then bring them together to share their individual ideas with the group.

2.  The essence of charisma is mindfulness (Ellen Langer, Harvard) Mindfulness is nothing more than noticing new things as they occur.  Sounds simple, but we spend much of our lives in mindless autopilot, assuming that the situation in front of us (whether it be our commute, our coffee, or our colleague) is the same as every situation that's come before.  This kind of mindless state is not lost on others; it is readily perceived by children, adults, and animals alike.  Mindfulness cannot be faked.  This is why leaders register as charismatic when they are mindful: actively engaged in the present, visibly invested in the uniqueness of the person before them, curious and ready to learn.

3.  Expanding your emotional vocabulary can change how you feel (Lisa Feldman Barrett, Boston College) Changing what you think about what you are feeling can change how you experience emotion. (It's okay, read that sentence again.)  Our feelings don't just happen to us.  In fact, both the emotional and decision-making parts of the brain are involved in how we experience our feelings.  The better we are at to pinpointing and labeling our exact emotions, the better able we'll be to shift our experience of how we are feeling.  For example, rather than settling on "angry" to describe how that encounter with your coworker made you feel, try to figure out if the feeling is really "embarrassed," "inadequate," or even "sleep-deprived."  This will change your experience of the situation that made you "angry" in the first place.

4.  Sometimes the best choice is not to choose at all (Sheena Iyengar, Columbia) We are bombarded with choices everyday.  Iyengar's research shows that the more choices we have (and the less meaningful the distinction between our choices), the worse we are at making a decision that we will be happy with.  Overwhelmed with choices, we end up either not choosing anything, or making a choice we later second-guess.  Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to opt out of choosing altogether.  It's okay to decide that the time we'd spend deliberating over this widget or that one is ultimately distracting us from our end goal.  (Incidentally, this is why I don't have TV, much less cable -- too many choices.)

5. Why we get bored of our spouses, but not our kids (Ellen Langer again) Situations/jobs/people are neither inherently boring nor inherently interesting.  It's our experience of these things/people that makes them so. Attending to what's different (what's changing) is what makes the world seem engaging.  The more we notice, the more interesting the world is.  A person will complain that she is bored in her relationship with her spouse of 20 years... but the same person would never say that after 20 years of parenthood, she is bored with her kids. This is because we expect our children to change. Our spouses - not so much.

There are many more thoughts from the day captured on my Twitter stream from the conference. Signing off for tonight.

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Peter Block Asks You to Bring Surprise into a World that Wants Control

Last week organizational consulting guru Peter Block spoke at my school.  Block, the author of numerous books (most famously, Flawless Consulting) has over the past decade turned his attention to creating communities "that work for all," most notably in his own community of Cincinnati, OH.  Block describes his work as "bring[ing] change into the world through consent and connectedness rather than through mandate and force." Block is someone who invites his audience to experience what he's preaching in real time- in this case it meant spending 10 minutes in a circle with two strangers ("knees no more than 9 inches apart") asking and answering compelling questions.

I am still absorbing/wrestling with some of the ideas Block put forward that night (particularly as they relate to social justice) but I wanted to share some of my key learnings.

What follows is directly from my notes, so while it is not a transcript, it should be considered a pretty close paraphrase of Block's words as I heard them.  These are the points that most resonated with me.

Organizations are patriarchal. Organizations/institutions are inherently patriarchal.  The essence of patriarchy is this: I know what's best for you.    The belief that The Boss = Cause of any given situation and Subordinate = Effect is a false one.  We give power to people above us because we think they are "cause" and that they set culture.  In reality, we re-produce patriarchy through our participation in it.  There is a collusion between patriarchy and our wish for safety.  Leaders must work with people in a way that makes them feel that they are the creators of their own experiences.

Relatedness is everything. Get obsessive about connecting people.  Our work is to create circles of possibility within the hierarchical structure of institutions.  The circle is the symbol of an alternative culture.  The circle says: we all matter.  Our eyes connect.  All voices are heard.  Group people together with strangers, because hierarchy is supported by like-mindedness.  I cannot be surprised if I am connecting with people I already know.  Bring surprise into a world that wants control.  In the circle, create a world that is an example of the larger world we want to inhabit.

Questions bring us together, answers drive us apart. Create a moratorium on doling out advice or help.  Working on problems isn't powerful - ask questions instead.  Get curious, be interested, pay attention.  Ask questions that have an edge to them.   Ask, "why does that matter?"  Other powerful questions:  "What is the question that is animating your life right now?" "What is the crossroads you're at at this stage of your life?"  "For the thing you're complaining about, what's your role in creating it?"

Slow down and connect with people. Building connections with one another takes time. People will say it takes too much time, that there are more important things to do.  Speed is the argument against love, against relatedness, against democracy.  Doing is a defense against being.

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Four Stunning Tools for Visual Learning

Learning styles may be a myth, but I will make the unscientific assertion that I am a visual learner.  I need to see things for them to sink in.  In the past month, a handful of stunning visual learning tools have caught my attention. 1.  Take Notes in a New Way At a leadership retreat I attended last month, the two group facilitators were joined by a silent but powerful partner: Nora Herting, a graphic recorder from ImageThink.  As the retreat unfolded, Nora drew images and highlighted key phrases to capture the spirit and content of what was said.  Posted on the walls, the drawings became a map of our time together and conversation pieces in and of themselves.  Here's a video of Nora and her colleague at work:


2.  Zoom Past Powerpoint A friend introduced me to Prezi, a zooming, nonlinear presentation tool which offers a welcome alternative to Powerpoint.  In Prezi, instead of making sequential slides, you create your presentation on a big blank (electronic) canvas using font size, images and framing of text to create variety and emphasis.  Come presentation time you literally zoom around your canvas, following a path that you set ahead of time or changing course as the mood strikes.  I've only played around with Prezi online and have not yet used it for a presentation.  I'd be interested in hearing from folks who've tried it out.