To be successful, researchers at the Neuroleadership Institute have found we must excel across three core domains of great leadership: being future-focused, being good with people, and being able to drive results. And yet, as we develop as leaders, our brains evolve in ways that challenge our ability to excel in these areas. The team analyzed dozens of leadership development programs used by larger organizations and discovered they often fail to equip leaders across all three domains. The good news is that we can be taught to combat these tendencies once we understand why our brains fight us.
Robin, a perennial high achiever, has just been promoted to her first leadership position. But her first few months on the job have been tougher than expected: Her colleagues don’t joke around with her anymore, she’s pulled in different directions, and she’s constantly putting out fires. When one of her top performers suddenly leaves for another opportunity, Robin realizes her team is under-resourced. The pressure takes its toll, and Robin begins to dread Monday mornings. Maybe she just wasn’t cut out to be a leader?
Robin’s story is a familiar one. Sixty percent of new managers fail within the first 24 months. And this isn’t just an issue for new managers: 50% to 70% of new executives fail in the first 18 months, too.
To be successful, our research at the Neuroleadership Institute has found we must excel across three core domains of great leadership: being future-focused, being good with people, and being able to drive results. And yet, as we develop as leaders, our brains evolve in ways that challenge our ability to excel in these areas. We analyzed dozens of leadership development programs used by larger organizations and discovered they often fail to equip leaders across all three domains. The good news is that we can be taught to combat these tendencies once we understand why our brains fight us.
Focus on the Future
Rather than just doing the work of today, leaders must constantly scan for what’s next and make sure their teams are prepared. This is at odds with how our brains evolved to value the immediate and short-term future. Indeed, in one study, 27% of Americans say they rarely or never think about what might happen five years into the future. That’s a concern because anticipating things like industry trends, future skills requirements, and customer needs is central to a leader’s success.
According to management consultant Elliott Jaques, the higher you go in an organization, the further out you need to think. While a line manager might have to maintain a plan for a quarter, a CEO needs to think about where the business will be in 10 years. Jacques called this concept “time span.”
The challenge, of course, is that thinking about the future is difficult in the best of times. The more people have to think about, the harder it is to notice the quiet signals that can provide insights about possible futures. Our brains also have to battle distance bias, which causes us to prioritize ideas and decisions closer in time over things further in the future. What’s more, only 16% of the executive leadership programs we studied have outcomes dedicated to thinking about the future, and the numbers are even lower for mid-level and first-time leader programs, at 4% and 6%, respectively.
Fortunately, research suggests the habit of thinking about and predicting the future is a learnable skill, and it’s one of many cognitive skills leaders can and should learn as part of leadership training. One way to get started is to block off time each month and map out a “future state” for where you’d like your team to be in three to six months. Using that vision, then work backwards to determine what you’d need to do to get your team to that destination in the next six months.
Your People Are Everything
Leaders are jugglers — and the things they juggle are often at odds. Take, for example, leaders’ overall responsibility: To deliver a business strategy that creates successful outcomes. And yet, they must also be good at connecting with and motivating their people.
These two tasks are often at odds because people often get promoted to leadership positions because of technical competence, not personability. Social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman points out that a leader who is both technically competent and highly personable is somewhat of a unicorn. He references one study in which a leader who was seen as focusing on results — which combines strong analytical skills with an intense motivation to move forward and solve problems — only had a 14% chance of being seen as a great leader. If a leader was strong only with social skills — attributes like communication and empathy — they were seen as a great leader even less, only 12%.
However, for leaders who were strong in both results and social skills, the likelihood of being seen as a great leader skyrocketed to 72%.
So how many of these unicorns are out there? One of us (David), along with Tricia Naddaff, CEO of Management Research Group, analyzed data from thousands of employees in which people rated their bosses on goal focus and people focus. Less than 1% of leaders were rated high on both.
It turns out there’s a neurological reason for this. Neuroimaging studies have shown a seesaw effect exists for the separate brain centers responsible for goal focus and people focus: When one dials up, the other dials down. What’s more, research shows that as an individual’s power increases, the brain’s goal-focus network becomes dominant. This process is adaptive because to make effective decisions as a leader, one must often detach from the needs of every individual and view them more as chess pieces than human beings.
Getting the right balance between goal and people focus is the key. But according to our research, only 58% of executive leadership programs focus on people outcomes, with 64% and 51% for mid-level and first-time leaders, respectively. Knowing this, leaders can cultivate the right balance by being more intentional about sending the signals to employees that they’re cared for.
Drive Realistic Results
One of the biggest conundrums of leadership is the way our brains perceive power. As individuals perceive themselves to be more powerful, they tend to become more optimistic. This often leads to unrealistic targets and inflated expectations, which can cause a disconnect between leaders and their direct reports who are doing the heavy lifting.
The result is that leaders become more “vision-focused” and less concerned with detail. Having a sense of power triggers our brain positively and makes us feel good in the same way winning money or getting a reward does. As soon as the brain is triggered this way, it seeks to activate more of those rewards by directing our behavior to power-rewarding activities, like thinking big picture or pursuing goals rather than focusing on details.
The good news is that by understanding the brain’s tendency to become less detail-oriented and more visionary, you can counteract the urges by seeking other perspectives to stay realistic about the present and set more people-focused goals that are tied to the welfare of others. For example, if you’re embarking on a new project and think it should take three weeks to complete, ask for the perspectives of others who will execute the day-to-day tasks to ensure alignment on how much time it takes to deliver a quality product – and then be open to shifting your timeline, if possible.
Luckily for Robin, her company invested in a well-designed leadership program that balances all three challenging capabilities. Over the next six months, she gained insights that allowed her to better understand what makes her team tick while learning how to think ahead and balance various aspects of leadership with the tactical demands of the everyday. Although the brain might not be naturally built for leadership, with the right science-based training and habit formation, leaders at all levels can power through that tough Monday — and beyond.