Anyone can wire their brain for leadership – here’s how

By Terry Small
Feb 7, 2022
Photo credit: MF3d/E+/Getty Images

In our podcast episode, Terry Small, a master teacher and learning skills specialist, shares his tips on how we can shift our mindset to improve our leadership in this interview with Leah Giesbrecht, communications specialist with CPABC. Part of our Coffee Chats with CPABC podcast series.

Often when I teach sessions on wiring the brain for high-impact leadership, attendees will ask, “How do I become a better leader?” But I think that’s the wrong question to ask. I think the right question to ask is, “How do I get a following?” Or in other words, “How do I build my ability to influence?”

When we ask the question that way, then we have to talk about the brain. The brain is about who we are and what we do. Leadership is about who we are and what we do. My take on leadership and the brain is that leadership is a pathway. It's not a doorway. It's a way of being – it’s not a position or a title. 

In many ways, leadership is about changing people's mindset. And when we look at leadership through the lens of neuroplasticity – which refers to the fact that your brain is always changing by adding connections, losing connections, or strengthening connections – ultimately, your brain gets good at what it does. 

For example, we all know people who are really good at complaining. They weren't born that way; that person became a world-class complainer by practicing. And neuroscience tells us that once the brain wires for world-class complaining, that brain gets good at seeing things to complain about everywhere. And this is true of almost anything. 

Some people are born with attributes that lend themselves to being strong leaders. But people born without these attributes can learn them. So given that, how hard should you try to improve your leadership skills? Well, science says you should try really hard because anybody can become a better leader. And my bias is everybody is a leader.

Who’s had a positive influence on you?

Think of someone who had a massive positive impact on your life. It could be a parent, boss, or next-door neighbor. Now think about some of the reasons why. Who were these people? What did they do? What did they say? How did they treat you? 

When I ask people this question, they tend to say things like: They had perspective. They were cheerful and balanced. They were motivated. They helped me have a better life. They were friendly. They were authentic. They listened to me. They were inclusive. Nobody ever says, "Well, the person who had the biggest impact on me was so-and-so because they gave me an 18% pay increase last year." 

Though what people say about those who influenced them is diverse, it reveals a pattern about what actually influences people and how people gain a following. How you make other people feel plays a huge part. After all, the brain is primarily driven by emotion, not logic. 

Thinking is a process of electrical, chemical reaction. 85% of the neural messaging in the brain originates in this clump of structures that sits right on the brain stem called the limbic system. This is the emotional part of the brain. This is the fight-or-flight part of the brain. Only 15% originates in the cortical prefrontal cortex, or the executive part of the brain which is associated with things like complex planning, decision making, and so on. 

The limbic system is really looking to satisfy five questions which I like to visualize as five checkboxes. This applies to everyone – whether you’re in a designated leadership role or a junior employee. As individuals, we all want to feel that these check boxes are satisfied. 

And the five questions that go with each one of these checkboxes are: 

  1. Am I important? 
  2. Am I secure? 
  3. Am I free? 
  4. Do I belong? 
  5. Are things fair? 

Through your actions – again, whether you’re in a designated leadership role or not – you can also help other people feel that their own checkboxes are satisfied.  Chances are, if you do this, you will earn their trust and following and become a better leader. 

The importance of active listening

So how can you do this? As a start, one thing is to make other people feel important. Every human being has a deep-seated need to feel that they matter. That if they weren’t here, somebody would notice. That the work they do is needed. It's important. This applies to everybody. It doesn't matter where you are in your organization. If you're the most junior person, you can make your boss feel important or unimportant. When you wire your brain around the principle, "Make the other person feel important," you'll think of a hundred ways that you can get this right or wrong. 

Some of the ways you can get it right are through active listening. Listen with your full attention. When you're talking to somebody, don't look at your phone. In fact, you shouldn't even have your phone on your desk. There was a study done that found that if your phone is anywhere in your peripheral vision, your attention density diminishes significantly. I don't know anybody that can afford to lose a substantial amount of their focus, especially when they’re talking to someone about something important. 

You can also listen to understand, not respond. People can tell if you’re thinking about what you’re going say, as opposed to listening to them. So narrow your field of focus. And trust that you will have a good response when it’s time to speak. Don’t formulate it while the other person is talking. You're an experienced, bright, empathetic leader. You'll have a good response. 

Monitoring the weather in your brain (your presence affects other people)

Your physical presence also affects and influences other people. Some people call this “giving off vibes.” Scientists call it cognitive affective presence. Whatever you call it, your brain is the source of it. 

In terms of leading, the first big challenge is to manage your own brain state. I recently read a study that if you live next door to a happy person, you're 34% more likely to be happy yourself. Emotion is contagious.  

One of the first things I do when I get up in the morning is to check the weather in my brain. In other words, I assess my mood and how I’m feeling. I do this because I’ve learned that my day will only be as good as the weather in my brain. If the weather is not good, I change it – maybe by examining and accepting my emotions, identifying what I’m feeling and why, then refocusing. Because I know that ultimately it will determine the trajectory of my day. Managing our brain state is also important because it has a huge impact on the brain states of the people we work with. 

If you can monitor and manage your own brain state – and work on rewiring your brain around the principles of making others feel important, secure, free, and like they belong and are being treated fairly – you will be well on your way to building a following and increasing your ability to influence and lead.

Terry Small, B.Ed., M.A., is a master teacher and Canada's leading learning skills specialist. He is the author of the Brain Bulletin with over 34,000 subscribers worldwide.