27 September 2023

Leading from the top: How leadership skills could be all in the brain

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Tarla Lambert* says a top UK scientist explains how the anatomy of our brains can determine our capacity for leadership.

The complexity of the brain has mystified humans throughout the ages.

How can such a tiny organ — just 2 per cent of our total body mass — determine who we are as people?

How exactly does it work, and will we ever conclusively know?

Dr Hannah Critchlow (pictured) was recently nominated one of the UK’s Top 100 scientists as well as one of Cambridge University’s “most inspirational and successful women in science”.

Following an unconventional trajectory, Critchlow’s interest in neuroscience was sparked after she worked as a psychiatric nursing assistant and witnessed individuals suffering debilitating mental health conditions with insufficient relief.

She felt compelled to be at the forefront of change.

And, in only a short time, Critchlow’s contribution to neuroscience has been remarkable.

A regular globetrotter, she has spoken at some of the most respected and recognised medical forums and presents weekly on BBC Radio.

Most impressively, she has successfully made her profound knowledge and passion accessible to everyone.

In a field with so few women, Critchlow’s ascending star is proof that change is afoot.

Next year, she’s set to follow up her first book, Consciousness, with a publication on “the science of fate”, which looks at the brain as a physical organ capable of determining a person’s hardwiring.

Indeed, recent neurological research backs up Critchlow’s beliefs, showing a link between people with distinct personality attributes and certain brain anatomies.

Those who have brains with larger prefrontal cortexes, with many “slots” for beta-endorphins, are “almost hardwired” to seek out a variety of friendship groups says Critchlow.

“They are like conduits which let information be exchanged from clique to clique, so that is a very important role within society,” she says.

“And then there are people with a much smaller prefrontal cortex and they have a much smaller group of friends, or they spend more time with each of their friends in closer relationships.”

“There is a hypothesis that because these people have fewer beta endorphin spots they don’t need to go around filling them up by meeting lots of other people.”

Unsurprisingly these two groups of people respond differently to the workplace.

People with a larger prefrontal cortex are more likely to feel comfortable working in open, noisy and collaborative offices, while those with a smaller prefrontal cortex are more likely to enjoy independent work routines with smaller teams.

In part, other human tendencies, like entrepreneurialism, can be explained by neuroscience too, says Critchlow.

People “who are thriving in taking risks in business have an evolutionary drive to do so and that is based around their brain biology”.

“Much of this is intuitive, of course, and we have talked about this for decades, but neuroscience is now demonstrating how this has a basis in the brain,” she says.

“I am interested in understanding how much of our behaviour is ingrained.”

“We are seeing now that a lot of what we do is predetermined, so that opens up the question on whether we actually have any agency, or any free will at all.”

As such, employers need to be sensitive to people’s innate dispositions and also limitations.

Being open to true diversity and inclusion is paramount.

“For managers and leaders there is a responsibility for acceptance, but also to use this to be the best person they can be and look after the mental health of their teams,” says Critchlow.

“Our individuality is a beautiful thing, and it’s the brain which produces that individuality.”

This article is informed by a feature interview with journalist Lachlan Colquhoun in Leadership Matters magazine.

* Tarla Lambert is the publisher of Women’s Agenda. She tweets at @tarla_lambert.

This article first appeared at womensagenda.com.au.

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