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Neuro Leadership: A Need for a Brain-Friendlier Approach

18.02.2020Comments are closed.

Nikolaos Dimitriadis, PhD

Development Director, The University of Sheffield International Faculty, City College, Greece 

Nikolaos Dimitriadis is an award-winning communications professional, educator, and consultant. He is also a pioneer of applied neuroscience in marketing, management, and leadership. As the co-author of the book “Neuroscience for Leaders: A Brain Adaptive Leadership Approach,” he is applying neuro leadership into the Ljubljana MBA programme curricula, and participating in SEB LU’s executive education activities. In his career he has worked with world renowned brands such as IKEA, IBM, Nestle, Coca Cola, USAID, and others.

What was the inspiration for you as a communications and marketing professional for studying neuroscience?

My inspiration or motivation for studying neuroscience consists of two parts; one is professional and other is passion-based. The professional has to do with the fact that communication, in its real form, is about behaviour, whether it is marketing, leadership, or any other field. In marketing for example, it is all about trying to find out why people try certain samples, visiting a certain website, or buying something. In leadership you usually want people to change habits, engage with co-workers, etc. Communication is actually a basic tool for changing behaviour, and we need to understand what drives it and where the decision-making of this behaviour exists within the human experience. For me it’s a professional requirement to study the human brain, because this is where decision-making exists. Neuroscience is not even a chance or option; it is a must. It is amazing that even very traditional approaches in business now pay attention to this field. Neuroscience is not a niche anymore; it is becoming a mainstream idea.

The second part of my inspiration is passionate motivation, which strives from a car accident I had two years ago. During the accident I had a blackout. It made me realise that I am not in control of my consciousness. I started researching, where decision-making is actually made. I found out that consciousness is not in control of as many things as we actually think it is. It feels like we are in control, but in reality this is just a feeling. The brain is actually where the magic happens; the brain makes the decision. It is an illusion that we run the show, that we make decisions. It is scientifically wrong to think like that; it is a perception. Psychologists call this perception a self – illusion.

Neuroscience is dramatically reshaping our knowledge and understanding in many areas. In your own perspective what are the most important messages of neuroscience that will affect our lives in the future? 

For me neuroscience is a big revolution of tribes. Among past big revolutions was the Earth’s Revolution that changed our view on the universe, when we realised that the sun revolves around the Earth. It was a very radical revolution; people went to jail because of it. And Darwin’s DNA revolution as well. Neuroscience, as many previous revolutions, is not easily accepted. It pushes aside many old ideas, especially the one of conviction or belief in certain things, that we consciously make decisions. Neuroscience started developing more than 20 years ago and still numerous studies are conducted every day; it revealed that behavioural decision making is not run by our consciousness. Being conscious of one’s action is actually based on deeper brain processes. It brings changes in many areas, such as: religion, politics, education, and the judicial system.

Neuroscience tells us that the brain is responsible for our decisions, not the mind, or the abstract ideas, but the biology of the brain. In my opinion, this will change our whole society. It is a big debate in global science, if consciousness is not involved in decision-making, then why do we have it? It is proven by science, that we don’t make decisions consciously. Our mind is like a screen – we see everything and think we produced it. When in reality unconsciousness produces it and then just projects it into our mind. It is very interesting for me to see how neuroscience will change the society for the better. Because we can’t continue with a lie. And a lie is that decisions are conscious. It is scary truth, but it is true.

For decades, leaders and managers have been trained to think and act upon the assumption that people are rational beings. You teach managers that the old way of thinking in management is not just outdated, but also dangerous. Can you tell more about it?

Unfortunately, thanks to very traditional and outdated scientific ideas, we have developed a management system which approaches human beings in a very simplistic and arrogant way. It talks about human beings as being very rational, knowing what they have to do. It is also based on a traditional economics agent theory, saying that people will work well if they get a good salary and vice-versa. Motivational approaches like the carrot and stick or the Mayo – Hawthorne Effect are all wrong of course. They are based on what we now call extrinsic motivation, which is based on compensation. But what we have to understand now is that motivation is also intrinsic, it comes from the inside. Intrinsic motivation is extremely powerful, it has to do with pride and passion. It also has to do with autonomy, purpose, and contribution. This type of motivation is extremely important for the outcomes leaders want from their employees today. It is vital for out-of-the-box thinking, connecting with other employees, as well as for team work and team spirit. It is about ‘intrapreneurs,’ not entrepreneurs. Intrapreneurs actually feel connected to work, as if the business is theirs and they are not just employees. This is a brand new model.

In the past, we developed a management system that only predicted one aspect of human nature, and not even the most important one. Now we need to change. Neuroscience is showing us new ways to consider humans not just as logical beings, but also as emotional, irrational, and relational. Emotions drive decisions in the brain. We need to change the models to be more science-based, more brain-based.

You have developed a Brain Adaptive Leadership Approach. What is the most important message from this approach? How can leaders retrain their brains?

The most important message of neuroscience is neuroplasticity, which is a very positive message for humanity and shows our freedom as a species. Neuroplasticity is an ability of the brain to change throughout life and on a daily basis. New synapses are created and old ones are being deleted. New habits are being created and old ones have been changed. This is because of two processes. One process is based on brain intentions, on brain decisions. Depending on the importance, the brain will strengthen important habits and delete less important ones. The second process is neurogenesis, which is the process that each day produces new neurons. Between 800 and 2000 are produced each day until we die. The brain changes every day, so this leads us to Brain Adaptive Leadership. It talks about not going to let your brain change by itself every day, but to create a partnership with it in order to influence its decisions. We must become best friends with our brain to understand procedures and create a win–win relationship with our brain. This is the main message of the Brain Adaptive Leadership. We should develop a mind-set that will allow our brains to change our behaviours in order to succeed.

With your contributions, Ljubljana MBA programme became one of the first MBA programmes in the world to apply neuro science into its curricula. How does a neuro leadership course look? What are the competitive advantages that Ljubljana MBA students gain with neuro leadership training?

Ljubljana MBA has been an absolute innovator and is a cutting edge MBA programme worldwide with the introduction of neuro leadership in its curriculum in two ways. First, by having a neuro leadership module where students go through a fantastic neuro science journey by debating, presenting, and watching videos and lectures. They get deep insights and discover the most amazing results by working on their brain and on the brains of their team members. That is what neuro leadership talks about, your brain as a leader has to have advanced performance. Still, you can’t achieve anything alone, you also have to work with the brains of your teammates. And the second way, SEB LU’s MBA students have a unique opportunity to go through a brain scan, and through the process of reading their brain. This is a revolution in education, not only evolution.

How should universities take advantage of neuroscience, what is your advice? Should universities completely change their mind sets about teaching modes and deliveries?

Yes, neuroscience is changing everything. We have neuro leadership, neuro marketing, neuro finance. But not only within companies, “neuro” is changing everything. Neuroscience is changing education and learning, as well. Everything is becoming neuro. I am very interested in neuro education. Neuroscience is changing a lot of what we think we understand; how memory works, how engagement works, how skills are developed, education practices are being changed. There is scientific evidence that both the content and the way that student interacts with the content through lectures, videos, case studies, or online tests have a critical impact on the brain’s ability to retain information and improve behaviour. That means we need to change habits and develop new skills. The key word here is engagement, which is when the brain decides that something is important and invests more neurons to the task.


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