The Chemistry of Great Leadership

Written by Kevin Murray Monday 26 June 2017
Understanding how your brain works can be a key step in the path to business success

When people find a sense of purpose, and begin to dream and chase positive goals, the benefits are limitless. They change themselves, they better their families, they improve their communities, they help their organisations and companies to perform better, they help to create wealth and prosperity, and they contribute to society in a wide range of ways. But what is it about having a purpose that has such a positive effect on these individuals?

I have always understood that how we feel determines how we perform. And how we feel is just an emotional state, or a biological reaction to stimuli. So, it therefore makes sense that neuroscientists around the world are applying their research into the connections between the brain and behaviour to the working environment.

This neuroscientific research is now providing invaluable insights for businesses. And for business leaders, it means that understanding how our brains function, and the chemicals they release, is becoming an increasingly vital step towards delivering business strategies successfully.

What can leaders learn from neuroscience?

So what do these scientists know about how giving people a sense of purpose affects their brains? I spoke to one of Britain’s leading neuroscientists, Dr Duncan Banks, to get his insights.

“Purpose is most often derived from a willingness to take part in activities for the greater good of the community,” he said. “It is all a matter of whether you feel worthy or worthless. Make them feel worthy and they will try harder.”

According to Dr Banks, we are all naturally communal animals and we became even more communal as we developed communications skills: “We know that enrichment has a big part to play in brain development from an early stage, even for babies. Give them a rich environment in which they develop and you’ll find they develop into better individuals. If you put someone into an un-rich, worthless environment, they are very likely to go downhill and not be able to contribute, whether this is in a business or in a community.

“When you have a sense of purpose, especially a sense of common purpose, your brain chemistry changes. These chemicals change everything – from your perception of pain, your ability to handle difficult and challenging environments, and even your health and well-being. For all these reasons, leaders need to think about whether they make their employees feel worthless or worthy.”

So what can business leaders take away from these insights? Well, start by considering if you make your employees feel a sense of common purpose and part of a community? Do you communicate in a way that involves people and really listens to them, as well as persuading and encouraging them?

Only by communicating effectively, can leaders make their employees feel worthy and respected.

The positive side effect will always be an increase in performance, because people who feel worthy are much more likely to give of their discretionary effort when called on to work harder.

Is the UK working hard?

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the business and economics research arm of McKinsey and Co, there are currently around 30 million active workers in the UK. Sadly, however, it appears that being classified as an active worker does not necessarily mean that you are actually very active.

The evidence is that there are an awful lot of people who are not working very hard.

The latest surveys on trends in employee engagement around the world, conducted by Aon suggest that only 62% of workers are ‘engaged’ at work.

By ‘engaged’ they mean people who have purpose; people who want, and are able, to give their best at work each and every day, bringing energy, commitment and creativity to their jobs and helping their employers to be successful.

So, if more than one-third of workers are not engaged that means there are more than 10 million people in the UK who go to work and do as little as possible before packing up and going back home again. They simply go through the motions at work, but do not really exert the full force of their creativity, intelligence or effort. Can that be right?

The cost of disengagement

So how much is this level of worker disengagement costing the world economy? How much is it costing us here in the UK? And how much is it costing your company?

The numbers suggest that it could be affecting your attempts to achieve your goals – whether that is to win more customers, generate more revenue, keep your customers satisfied, save costs or just improve profits.

Ask yourself what a productivity improvement of just 10% would mean to your company. The impact on the bottom line could be huge, so it should be no surprise that there is a groundswell of support starting to push the issue of engagement beyond HR professionals into company boardrooms. Why? The answer seems fairly obvious.

“There is money sitting on the table here, in terms of growth and organisational performance”, says Wendy Leedham, who was until recently the programme director for Engage for Success (Wendy was loaned to the movement by Lloyds Banking Group). “That translates into GDP for our country. And there are other benefits – it’s win-win – because employees live longer, have fewer illnesses, happier lives, and they feel fulfilled in terms of having meaning and purpose.”

Kevin Murray has been advising leaders and leadership teams for three decades. He specialises in leadership coaching and gives talks on leadership around the world. His previous books The Language of Leaders and Communicate to Inspire were both shortlisted for the CMI Management Book of the Year prize, and his latest book People with Purpose is out now, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99