In his pioneering study on leadership, American historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns states “[T]he ultimate test of practical leadership is the realization of intended, real change that meets people’s enduring needs.”
Recent neuroscience research suggests leadership that is relationship-focused best leverages our understanding of the brain as a “social animal” to inspire followers to adapt, innovate and willingly do what they would not otherwise choose to do.
There are numerous leadership models: things to do, ways to be and ideas about required competencies to be invoked. However, at its most basic, leadership is about a relationship. From birth, human infants seek positive connections with caregivers and this continues into adulthood. It is through interactions and relationships that people find meaning, especially in the workplace.
To meet unmet needs, leaders require a comparison of the “as is” vs. the desired “to be” state. Leaders provide certainty as to objectives and variables. The means depend on the dynamic among the leader, followers and their joint trajectory toward the desired end-state.
This leadership framework places a premium on the ability to articulate the goal/vision (purpose), gaining knowledge required to make it happen (content), the leader understanding him or herself and how he or she relates to others in leading the endeavor (connectivity) and understanding the environment in which the effort takes place (context).
Implicit in defining purpose is understanding the desired end-state. Humans are hard wired for survival. Any goal directed activity requires a “goal representation” followed by intent to take action. Neuroscience suggests the more unique the goal, the more conscious the effort necessary to anticipate challenges and determine options to overcome.
Content, the essence of the vision, is about creating compelling positive images of the desired end-state, and should be tailored to those whom we serve as leaders. Images are the language of the mind. Content bridges the gap between what we know and what we need to learn.
Connectivity is about the leader’s connection to others and the environment. It is the difference between the default network — the leader’s ongoing personal narrative — and direct experience — what they’re feeling and sensing now. Leaders with a high degree of connectivity understand that motivation varies by individual, and take the time to discover how to make the effort personally enriching.
Context is assessing the leadership objective from the perspective of “What does this mean now?” It’s about leaders making sense of the current environment and continuously assessing if they have it right and what’s changed?
What we perceive directly links to what we know, and to perceive other choices, we have to know something we haven’t learned yet. The interplay of our environment, and both our automatic responses and cognitive functions affect our perception of “what is” and influences subsequent decisions and behavior.
This framework of content, connectivity and context leverages the brain science behind leading people and can help unclutter leadership strategies.
This article is a sidebar to Chief Learning Officer's December 2014 feature, "Keep Mentally Fit with Mind Exercises."