Neuroscience of Leadership

The Neuroscience of Leadership

Elon Musk. Steve Jobs. Mark Zuckerburg. Three names that spell wealth, leadership and success. But what is about these leaders – and many others like them – that stands them apart from the crowd? Is it drive? Destiny? Intelligence? Perhaps it is a combination of all three, but perhaps it is something fundamentally different.

In attempts to understand – for want of a better expression – The X Factor of these leaders, scientists have begun to delve deeper into the inner workings of the brain and have started to explore the neuroscience of leadership. Could it be that these successful leader’s brains simply operate in a different way to the rest of us? Is there a way to train yourself to think as they think? To act as they act? All pertinent questions that this short article will look to answer…

Modern Science and Neuroleadership

In 2009, David Rock conceptualized Neuroleadership – which describes the application of neuroscience to leadership development; management training; change management education and consulting; and coaching – in his seminal publication Your Brain At Work.

Whilst still in it’s infancy, the field of neuroleadership has continued to progress since Rock’s book hit the shelves. In fact, today, a whole scientific journal dedicated to the subject exists. Through innovative research, neuroscience has begun to map neural pathways between human interaction and effective leadership, and assist in unlocking the power of neuroplasticity (abandoning the neuropathways you are currently stuck in) and unleashing your brain’s innate agility and resilience.

Employing Neuroleadership Techniques

Despite rapidly advancing scientific research, neuroleadership techniques are comparatively simple to adopt in practice.

The first aspect of neuroleadership to consider, is body language. This may sound simple, it is somewhat obvious to have open and encouraging body language when communicating with a team. However, the influence of body language on the message being communicated is vast. It is in fact so extensive, that studies by Alexander Pentland revealed that good leaders can be distinguished from body language and signals alone, without having to know exactly what is being said. Taking the time to focus on is being said with the body is therefore arguably more important than perfecting a speech on a word by word basis.

A further technique, is more complex in nature, and requires a recalibration of emotional regulation. Our brain has just one braking system, and as such it grounds us physically, mentally and emotionally. However, this system can be trained by subjecting it to emotional events. Perhaps one reason behind the success of many of the great leaders of today have come from less than ideal origins, take the adoption of Steve Jobs as just one example.

Just like with a physical brake, the braking centre of the brain reduces force when activated. So, in the case of emotions these emotions become less intense. Increasing the braking capacity of your brain means that you can decrease the intensity of your emotions and conserve the brain power for rational and deliberate thinking – or in other terms, concentrate and lead more effectively.

Going With Your Gut

Malcolm Gladwell, a renowned Canadian journalist and author, published Blink in January, 2005. Blink is a book that focuses on the power of the human subconscious and how we can harness that power in our everyday lives.

Gladwell postulates the ability of “thin slicing”, which refers to using our initial reactions to a person, behaviour or situation, and how listening to that reaction can achieve greater results than gathering information over longer time periods.

Take the example of John Gottman, a psychologist working on marital relationships. Gottman can predict (with unerring accuracy) the health of two individuals marriage and whether they will “go the distance” from observing a one hour conversation between the two.

Gladwell also pays homage to FACS (Facial Action Coding System), conceptualized by Swedish anatomist Carl-Herman Hjortsjö, and further developed by the American duo Paul Ekman and Joseph Hager. FACS relates to identifying micro-changes in facial expressions to gather information about how people are reacting to your ideas and proposals. Learning to recognise these changes can create distinct advantages in business scenarios.

The reading of people, communication and expressions are invaluable skills in the business world, and utilizing these split decisions is prominent in business leaders who later state they “had a hunch” or “went with their gut”. Split decisions can result in huge profits, just look at Michael Burry and his big short on the US housing market before its crash in 2008.

Change Will Come, Be Ready

The field of neuroleadership and neuroscience will continue to advance. In just a short space of time, the field has generated a unique journal of publication, post graduate education programmes and an annual summit hosted by The Neuroleadership Institute.

Adapting to change is no mean feat. In fact, our brains often perceive change as a threat, and as such, are unwilling to accept it.

However, gaining a head start in understanding this new and exciting field of research could be key to becoming one of the great leaders of tomorrow. Change will come, and as Henry Kissinger said “The job of a leader is to get his/her people from where they are to where they have not yet been”.

Master the Most Powerful Leadership Habit You Didn’t Know You Had

What was the latest habit you adopted? Was it reading every day for at least one hour? Quitting coffee forever? It’s simple to keep track of these types of routines. Let’s call them action habits. You start one day and if you are still doing it months later without thinking about it, you got yourself a new action habit.

But underneath this productivity, all of us have emotional habits that determine how we approach life’s situations. Whether it’s a positive situation, like landing a big client, or a negative one, like losing a big client, our emotional habits influence how we perceive the situation.

In the words of Kimerer L. LaMothe, Ph.D., people “develop a habit of responding to whatever happens to them from the same emotional place.” So our emotional responses can become habits just as our actions can. She goes on to say that “there are three primary emotions—fear, grief, and anger. But over time people come to rely on one emotional color as their baseline response to new information. So there are people who are fear-based, grief-based, or anger-based.”

In other words, it’s no longer about what happens to us, but how we are used to reacting about what happens to us.

The Nature of Habits – A Quick Recap

We all read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and get it. We won’t go into the details, but let’s focus on the habit loop: cue, routine, and reward.

The more this loop repeats on a certain behavior or situation, the habit will get stronger as our brain adapts and creates a neural pathway to lock that habit in our normal behavior. This is how things become second nature. But none of this can happen unless there is a reward at the end of the loop.

So going back to Dr. Lamothe’s emotional responses—anger, fear and sadness—you might wonder how being angry, afraid or sad can be a reward that strengthens an emotional habit. The answer is simple. The reward isn’t in the emotion, but in the decision that came from the emotion. Here’s how that works:

Deciding In Fear

The reward of fear is security. By making decisions from a place of fear you avoid risks and gain a sense of security. So you might let that opportunity go because it posed a risk. Or you might decide not to push for that big ad campaign. The point isn’t whether you made the right decision or not. It’s the fact that deciding from fear gave you a sense of security. And that is a reward that reinforces the emotional habit of fear. There are people in your company that love feeling safe at the expense of being stuck. But your leadership can push your team forward.

Deciding in Anger

The reward of anger is control. It doesn’t mean you make decisions while upset. But angry decisions are aggressive and look to regain control of whatever went wrong. That is why managers snap at their employees or take over a department instead of trusting their team when things aren’t going well. There are people in your company that deeply resent being controlled, and others who feel more comfortable being controlled. Neither side of the coin is healthy. You want people to have the freedom to create a better place to work and ultimately a company that grows.

Deciding in Sadness

The reward of sadness is self-righteousness. This is the culture of pessimism and justification. When things go wrong, this habit will find ways to make excuses. The market is too saturated, the competition didn’t play fair, somebody screwed up, life is unfair. If you find a good reason to justify that obstacle, you will validate your misfortune. There are people in your company who prefer excuses over ownership. Your leadership can develop people who step up no matter the circumstances.

Better Emotional Habits

Businesses can thrive despite the most adverse circumstances. It’s possible that as you read this you thought “maybe this sounds like me, but it’s worked for me so far.” But what if these emotional habits are what’s stopping you and your company from the next big step. A better work culture starts with the small decisions, especially the ones taken in stressful situations.

Put simply, could it be that the reason why you react the way you do in stressful situations is just how you’re used to reacting? If so, it’s great news. Because you are no longer dealing with a lack of skill or a character issue. It’s only a habit. And habits can be transformed.

Develop Self-Awareness

Emotional habits speak in the form of thoughts. So being aware of your thoughts is a skill you need to master through your lifetime. This may sound mystical, but the most direct way to become aware of your thoughts is to think of yourself as someone else hearing yourself. But beware, not all your thoughts are true.

Awareness Leads to Better Leadership

Just because you have a thought it doesn’t mean it’s true. As we’ve seen, your thoughts are conditioned by habits, and some habits are harmful. So how do you know if you’re lying to yourself? You have to get used to asking yourself some questions.

Is this emotion proportional to the situation? Does this person I’m dealing with warrant this kind of reaction? Am I the kind of person who would react this way? Even better, when you think of the leader you are becoming, is this the kind of reaction you want to have?

As leaders, our success at work, at home and our personal life will be determined by how we manage our reactions to adversity. You can be the king of time and energy optimization but actions will only take you so far. In fact, focusing only on productivity can have negative consequences like, you guessed it, anxiety and fear.

Demanding the impossible

“Be a realist, demand the impossible.”

  • Protest graffiti, Paris, May 1968

It is all too easy to accept others’ definitions of achievement. To get caught up in other people’s aims and ambitions. To take others’ priorities as read.

This is the road to disaster. To throwing all your energy into goals you don’t really care about, growing tired and disillusioned, working with less and less energy at something you don’t love. If you’ve ever spent your days watching the clock, wishing the hours away until you can go home, then you know that feeling.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Learning from others, not imitating them

In the spring of 1968 France was thrown into turmoil. Not content to accept the aims given them by politicians and old-fashioned business leaders, students and workers rose in protest. They could see a different future for themselves and their country, and the demands they made, freedoms considered unthinkable by the establishment, transformed the country and led to the downfall of the government.

The world can change.

Steve Jobs built Apple on technologies and practices that were unimaginable to his competitors. The idea that our personal and working futures lay with computers. That we could carry our music collection in our pocket. That the most sophisticated technology in the world could be designed around the principle of simplicity. He created his own sense of achievement and succeeded on his terms.

Business can change.

Every small business owner, every entrepreneur, every consultant and free-lancer you’ve ever talked with started out working for someone else. Then they worked out what they wanted for themselves and they set out to do it.

You can change.

Finding your own aim

Choosing your own goal and working towards it is hard work, but it is infinitely more satisfying than the alternative. Happiness comes from meeting goals we find fulfilling, and you’ll never do that while they aren’t your own goals.

Look at what you value, what really matters to you. Whatever it is, there’s a job to be found or to be created in that field.

Rising to the challenge

Many of us struggle to define what we want to achieve. In that case look at the things that are wrong around you. The places in business, in politics, in your community where the right goals just aren’t being achieved. Look at those places and ask yourself what people are treating as valuable, what they are treating as success. Then ask what you think success should look like, what would be of real value in that area, and work towards it. You’ll have found an achievement that you really value.

Don’t shy away from the difficult challenges. The greatest, most fulfilling successes come from taking the path less followed, from finding things that challenge you and solving them. Satisfaction comes not from accepting our limits but from pushing them.

But always remember, work towards the things that you care about, even when others say that they are impossible. Maybe they are impossible within their world view, but yours is broader. You can see the change you want to be. You can make it happen.

Define your own success.

Demand the impossible.

Birds - Leadership

6 Things Strong Leaders Don’t Do

A lot of the time, we picture strong leadership in the wrong way. We think of it as macho posturing, using an assertive voice, or making commands and refusing to be moved from them.

In reality, strong leaders are like trees buffeted by a storm – they bend as the wind pushes them, but they remain firm in what makes them who they are. Part of that firmness is not falling into these six traps…

They Don’t Shy Away From Change

Change is difficult. Whether you’re a kid starting a new school or a CEO looking to transform her company, the unknown will naturally fill you with doubt. As human beings, we’re psychologically pre-disposed to focus on danger and loss above potential benefits. What we have now might not be perfect, it might even be deeply broken, but at least we know what it is.

Strong leaders face this tendency in themselves and set it aside. The doubts are still there, because they’re the most human thing in the world. But a strong leader can move past them and embrace change, because that way they can grow even stronger, and so can their business.

They Don’t Let Caution Win

There are few things more crippling than an unwillingness to take risks. The companies that lagged behind Apple in its early forays into portable electronics were left behind by this risk taking company. Many of those companies are so cautious that all their efforts since have focused on imitating what others have achieved, with only the slightest of variations in technology, style and price.

If you let caution win then you will never do anything bold or innovative. You will be stuck in a rut where you don’t stand out from the crowd. As a leader, you need to avoid giving in to caution, or doom yourself to become just another imitator.

They Don’t Fear Failure

The key to overcoming caution is to accept that sometimes you’ll fail, and that that’s OK.

Simón Bolivar, the man known as The Liberator for his role in Latin American independence, faced setbacks in his political career. For years, the revolutionary politics he was part of went nowhere. The first insurgency he took part in was soundly beaten. But Bolivar kept going, went on to achieve great success, and now has a country named after him.

Not every bold idea or plan is a good one. Sometimes you won’t know what will succeed until you try it, and that means facing some failures. But those failures are part of the path to greater success. A strong leader accepts that they will have failures, and so will the people working for them.

Failing in a project does not make you a failure as a person. But you cannot become a great success without risking those failures.

They Don’t Make the Same Mistake Over and Over

Failure becomes a problem when you don’t learn from it. At that point, you risk falling into one of the most famous definitions of madness – doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

Strong leaders don’t just move on past their mistakes. They examine them and learn from them. It can be a hard thing to do, and harder still to avoid turning this examination into a toxic and unproductive exercise in blame. But if you can take the pain of recognizing your own failings, and live up to the challenge of identifying other problems without casting blame, then you can learn for the future.

If you don’t do that, you’ll just make the same mistake again in a different situation, because you won’t understand what the problem was.

They Don’t Put Their Concerns Before Those of Others

One of the most difficult things for a strong leader to do is to listen. You have bold ideas and a sense of purpose, you’re going to want to push your agenda.

To get others to cooperate, you need to take a step back from that and give others time to express their opinions. A strong leader is resilient enough in herself and flexible enough in his views to listen to contrasting opinions while still retaining a sense of purpose. They don’t endlessly push their own concerns. They listen to and act on those of others, without being driven from their core purpose.

They Don’t Avoid the Challenge of the Social

Running a socially conscious business is both beneficial and challenging. The strongest leaders have a sense of purpose beyond just making money. They know how they want to shape the world, and they design their businesses to do that. This means facing the challenge of the social – understanding what impact you’re having on society and finding ways to make that better.

It takes a strong leader to say “no” when an idea would improve the bottom line but hurt employees, customers, or the community. It takes a strong leader to create a strong social purpose and build a company around it. But this is what strong leaders are made of – not avoiding the difficult choices.

Strong leaders face the difficult elements of leadership, from the risk of failure to listening to others. They embrace those difficult elements, and emerge all the stronger.


An Emotionally Positive Workplace

Emotions are great for work. If people are allowed to bring their feelings into the workplace then their passion will show, engagement will rise, and you’ll free up the energy that might otherwise be spent on repressing those feelings.

But negative emotions can be a huge problem, creating a toxic atmosphere filled with anger and distrust. So how can you encourage emotional expression in the workplace while preventing the negatives from taking over?

Develop Emotional Intelligence

A key tool for anyone in leadership, emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and understand the emotions of others, to empathize with them and to deal appropriately with those emotions.

Training in emotional intelligence should be a compulsory part of training for all leaders in your organization. If they can’t recognize what’s happening with their employees then they stand little chance of managing them well.

Avoid Hiring Negativity

Try to avoid hiring people who don’t cooperate well with others or who default to a negative outlook. Recruiters at Facebook do this by using questions about office politics and working with others to test how candidates respond. It isn’t a subject you can tackle head-on in an interview, but if you can find a way to incorporate it then you’ll avoid recruiting people whose negativity will kill the enthusiasm of others.

Recognize Effort

To spread the positivity around, focus on recognizing effort, not just performance.  Some employees are going to achieve exceptional things thanks to a combination of talent and the role they’ve been given. Others may not make their mark so strongly. If they only see others praised then their emotional engagement with work will drop. So openly acknowledge the effort people put in just getting the job done from day to day, whether or not they’ve done something exceptional.

Be Open

As a leader, you set the standard of behavior in your organization. What you do matters at least as much as what you say. If you don’t let other people see your emotions then they aren’t going to feel like they are allowed to express their own. So let your feelings show, especially when those feelings are of pride, excitement or delight.

This isn’t to say that you should lay your soul bare, exposing every sore nerve end of feelings. Let as much out as you feel comfortable with, and then see if you can show just a little more.

Dissipate Office Politics

Another lesson from Facebook – find ways to actively reduce office politics.

Office politics usually leads to negative feelings being stirred up, rather than encouraging positivity. So train leaders and managers to dissipate politics. Give them the communication skills to direct conversations away from these subjects, to listen to people’s concerns, and to act on then without a big drama.

Make Time to Talk

Most office politics comes from people not understanding the big picture, and so only seeing the part that impacts negatively on them. Taking the time to talk with employees, both individually and as groups, helps to counter this.

More than that, taking the time to casually chat with employees creates positive emotional bonds. The attention of a leader creates a feeling of pride and validation. A little light conversation helps to buoy the spirits, and directs attention onto things that make people happy.

So take the time to talk.

Be Honest

Lies, even well-intentioned ones, even those told by omission, create resentment. People spot the gap between words and reality even if they don’t see exactly what’s amiss.

So be honest about what’s going on with your organization. If things are tough then explain why and talk about how you’re planning to solve it. That way, employees will see that you are realistic, honest and forward looking. If things are going well then this is a time to celebrate. Either way, you bringing the focus onto the positives.

Show Kindness and Respect

A little kindness goes a long, but so does a little disrespect. If people don’t feel that their work and perspectives are treated seriously then resentment will fester.

So treat everyone equally seriously, from the lowest admin temp to the CEO. And use small acts of kindness, like remembering a birthday or making a round of coffees, to show that you don’t think that you’re above it all.

Let Go of Control

Great leaders inspire and guide rather than controlling. No-one likes to feel controlled or micro-managed, so as far as possible set the tone, set the agenda, and then sit back and let people do their jobs.

The more you try to control the flow of work, the more you sacrifice positive emotions on the altar of your ego.

Throw in Fun Events

Everyone has different ways of reviving a team or organization’s spirits, but most of them boil down to the same thing – relax and have fun. You can’t make every day into an away day or fancy dress challenge, but drop these events in once in a while. Surprise staff with a lunchtime buffet. Arrange trips out. Take your team for a drink. Associate your business with fun and people will enjoy working there more.


Build a Better Leadership Career Starting Today

Building a career in leadership isn’t easy. Building a career in leadership that suits you, that plays to your strengths and interests, that keeps you constantly interested and lets you progress to the best of your potential, that’s even tougher.

These five steps will help you to build a better leadership career – one that’s more fulfilling for you, and more likely to lead to success.

Only Shoot for the Goals You Really Want

Applying for a job that you aren’t suited to isn’t just a waste of the recruiter’s time and energy, it’s a waste of yours. Best case scenario, you don’t get the job and you get some useful feedback – feedback you could have got for less effort by other means. Worst case scenario, you end in the job, doing something you aren’t interested in or that’s a poor fit for your skillset. Nothing kills passion, and so the ability to push a career forwards, like being stuck in a joyless job.

So next time a relevant leadership post comes up at the level above yours, ask yourself if it’s really the post you want, or if you’re just considering applying because it’s there. Unless that specific role matches your interests and long-term career goals, save your time and energy. Spend the effort on doing your current job better, and that experience will stand you in good stead when the job you want comes up.

Use the Culture of Where You Work

There’s a time and place for going against the flow, but as tai chi practitioners know, the most efficient way to achieve anything is to adapt the flow of existing movement.

In career terms, this means working with the culture of where you work. Look at what opportunities for extra duties exist within the organization, identify the ones that interest you and will support your aims, and volunteer for them.

When you identify an opportunity to develop your skills, whether it’s through a training course, a conference or some other opportunity, think about how it fits with your employer’s aims and culture. Set out how the opportunity will help the organization and they’re more likely to fund it. Provide useful feedback to your organization afterwards, whether learning others can use or a list of useful contacts you’ve made, and you’re more likely to be given more opportunities like it.

Study What Matters Now

As a leader, some areas of study are timeless classics. You’ll gain a great deal from keeping on learning about people influencing techniques, change management, and ways to organize a business. But the best way to ensure that your career keeps moving forwards is to think about what’s relevant for you to study right now.

This may be a matter of what’s currently happening in the world, which might currently be social media techniques, the implications of Brexit, or how to work with Chinese businesses. It could be skills that are relevant to where your company is at, such as focusing on lean processes as your organization goes through a period of change. It might be skills relevant to what you want next, setting you up for the next step in the career ladder.

Whatever seems of immediate relevance, study its latest developments alongside the fundamental principles underlying it. That way, you’ll always be presenting the most cutting edge suggestions, not those that have come up a hundred times before.

Use Your Mistakes

Leaders can learn from their mistakes just as much as organizations can. What matters is that you learn from them.

This can be hard. It’s never easy to acknowledge when we’ve messed something up, even to ourselves. If you find yourself getting defensive on a topic, the odds are good that, somewhere in the back of your mind, you know that something in your own outlook is wrong. Use that feeling to identify mistakes instead of to avoid facing them.

However, you identify a mistake, take the time to analyze it. If a meeting you were running didn’t go well then consider what you could do in future to encourage participation or manage the participants. If a project goes off the rails, look at what you missed in the planning process and don’t do the same next time. If you alienate a colleague, work out how it happened, and consider how to achieve a more positive relationship in future.

Mistakes are a powerful tool for self-improvement, so don’t hide from them.

Find the Positive When Things Go Wrong

However hard you try to shape your career, not everything will work out the way you want. Sometimes a dream job will turn out to be a carefully disguised nightmare. Sometimes you’ll be stuck for a while in a place you no longer want to be. Sometimes other people’s goals will simply conflict with your own.

When things get tough, look for the positives in the situation and the ways that you can improve it by building relationships. This way, you avoid being ground down by negativity, have the chance to achieve more from the situation, and develop your people skills.

Whatever your career aims, if you can stay focused on the things you want, adapt to the time and place you’re in, and make the most of negatives, then you’ll build a stronger career and be a better leader.


For a socially responsible business, flexible working isn’t just nice to have – it’s a vital part of using work to make the world a better place. Social responsibility starts at home, and unless you treat your employees right then everything else is just an add-on.

Setting the Tone for the World We Live In

One reason why flexible working is so important to a social business is that it sends a message about how you view the world.

Social businesses are about connecting together profits with what’s good for people. Human and environmental well-being don’t get sacrificed on the altar of the fast buck. Instead, human-centered practices are shown to be good for a business’s bottom line, disrupting the old dichotomy between the two.

Inflexible working patterns came from a way of working, and of viewing work, that saw people as little more than a resource with which to achieve business ends. It didn’t matter whether the pattern of work suited employees, as long it suited the business. It was the opposite of socially responsible business – business riding roughshod over human lives.

Flexible working shows that you care about what’s good for your employees. It sends a message to those employees and to the world that you’re not putting money before people, because you think that what’s good for people is good for profits. It sets the tone for your business and for the world we live in.

Social Responsibility Towards Your Employees

It’s great to create socially responsible products and services, whether that’s fair trade coffee, environmentally sustainable technology, or financial services for the disadvantaged. But if your social responsibility is focused entirely on your customers then you’re missing out on helping the people whose lives you most directly influence – your employees.

Flexible working practices make the lives of employees far easier. Tasks important to their well-being, such as visiting the doctor or dropping the kids off at school, become much easier to manage. This makes for employees who are happier, healthier, and less stressed. That in itself is a goal worth achieving.

For this to work, you have to give employees genuine control of their hours. Calling it flexible isn’t enough if you set core hours, duties, or layers of approvals that give them no room to maneuver.

Increased Productivity

Flexible working isn’t just good for your employees – it’s good for your bottom line as well. An international survey by Vodafone, which questioned 8,000 employers and employees, found that 83% had seen improvements in productivity thanks to flexible working. A similar survey of workers in the UK found that twice as many found their productivity increased when working at home as found that it decreased.

Flexible working increases productivity in a number of ways.

Firstly, and tying in to the previous point, it increases the happiness and decreases the stress level of employees. This makes them able to work better.

Secondly, it allows better use of time. If an employee can work while sitting at home waiting for the washing machine repair man then the flow of work won’t be disrupted for that morning. If they can attend a meeting through a conference call while looking after their kids then that meeting doesn’t need to be postponed.

Thirdly, is allows recruitment from a larger talent pool. If you allow home working or flexible hours then you can take on employees who live further from your base of operations or whose lives wouldn’t allow them to work full time, whether due to health, children, or many other reasons.

Flexible working helps you to employ the best people and to get the most out of them.

Community Action

There are countless opportunities for people to volunteer in their communities. From food banks to charity shops to environmental improvements, volunteering helps to fill gaps left by the system. Many people are keen to help out in this way, but the challenge comes in finding the time, and particularly in finding time at a time that is convenient for the task to be done.

Flexible working allows employees to more easily fit volunteer activities into their schedule. Some people might choose to work four days a week and volunteer on the fifth. Others might arrange their schedule to fit a full working week around a morning as a volunteer, or take longer lunch breaks for an activity like reading in schools.

Flexible working can allow groups of employees to take time off together to volunteer. This can make volunteering, and the social good it does, more central to your business and the way it faces the world.

Approaches to Flexible Working

There are many different ways to make working patterns more flexible. Flexi-time can be used to let people shift their hours around, as can being adaptable about scheduling. Allowing employees to buy extra holiday days or be awarded them as bonuses gives them more potential time to themselves. Companies such as Netflix and Hubspot use unlimited leave schemes, allowing employees to work in a way that suits them, focusing on results rather than time spent at a desk. Remote working integrates home and work lives, creating more freedom and saving time on commuting.

By giving employees the chance to balance their home and work lives, you take responsibility for improving the society you’re a part of – that of your employees.

However, you achieve flexible working, it’s a way to be more socially responsible as a business, to set the tone for businesses everywhere, and to give something back while increasing productivity. In short, it’s essential to being a socially responsible business.

Let It Go

What do wartime generals and effective parents have in common?

They can both help us to become better leaders by letting go of control and instead setting expectations.

The Family Business

As we try to tackle issues of income inequality, it’s increasingly recognized that parenting really is a full time job, with all the hard work and specialist skills that involves. What we’re slower to recognize is that parents are a group of professionals we can all learn from.

Delving into a description of parenting may seem like teaching some of you to suck eggs, but for others – those without children – this is a world of mystery. And that balance between the risk of becoming patronizing and the risk of not giving enough information or guidance is one that parents face every day.

You’re under pressure from the kids to provide attention and cater to their physical needs, a pressure that becomes less constant but no less real as they grow up. At the same time, you’re under pressure from yourself to make sure that they’re safe, happy and learning to deal with the world in appropriate ways. With every ounce of energy going into this balancing act, it’s easy to take shortcuts, and that’s the point at which parenting becomes controlling.

It’s easier to say “you can’t go to that place” than to teach your child to play safely in a less secure environment. It’s easier to discourage their friendship with a child whose influence you don’t like than it is to balance that influence or discuss why their behavior is a problem. It’s emotionally easier to keep micromanaging a child’s behavior, pointing out every time things might go wrong, than to let go and let them take risks, risks that might hurt them but that will let them grow. Because you aren’t just risking your child’s health and happiness – you’re risking your own feelings too.

The more you control a child, the less they get to develop their own courage, judgement, and initiative. And if you don’t notice the point at which children outgrow old restrictions then you risk creating the resentment that is the hallmark of the sulking teenager, with all the sour relationships and wasted emotional energy that entails.

Effective parenting involves setting boundaries, explaining why they exist, and then trusting children to respond to those boundaries. It means actively involving kids in their lives, through making them part of conversations about what to do at the weekend, or through giving them chores around the house, making them part of the house-keeping team. It means giving them as much initiative as they can cope with at their age.

Think back to when you were a kid. Did you like it when your parents were controlling? Or did you prefer to be trusted? Now think about how it feels, as an adult, to be controlled and not to be trusted.

That feeling is why we should learn from effective parents. Set boundaries in the workplace instead of micromanaging. Let employees take risks. Involved them in decision making.

Don’t control.

Purpose and Doctrine

How do you let go of control without causing chaos? How do you guide without micro-managing?

Mark Bonchek of Shift Thinking has made an excellent argument for adopting the military approach of providing purpose and doctrine.

In war, it’s impossible for leaders to control what is happening on the ground. Enemy action and unforeseen accidents mean that troops have to be able to adapt. For these adaptations to be effective they have to follow the best steps towards victory. And so troops are provided with purpose and doctrine.

Purpose is the aim of the battle, campaign, or even war. For a business, it is the goals, both long and short term. So set targets and make sure to share them. If soldiers know what the aim of the fighting is then they will be better equipped to make decisions that serve that purpose. If employees know your goals then they will be better able to keep working towards them.

Doctrine is a set of guidelines for achieving that purpose. It could be anything from Henry V’s adoption of defensive archery formations to the way a modern war fleet is structured. Doctrine doesn’t tell soldiers what decisions to make, but it tells them how to make those decisions.

The equivalent of doctrine in most organizations will be procedures and other guidance documents. Badly written and inflexible procedures can be controlling and counter-productive. They rigidly define every last minute detail of a task, leaving no initiative to adapt to circumstances.

Good procedures instead provide a doctrine. They leave employees free to make decisions appropriate to their skills and level of authority. They let them make use of the knowledge they have developed. They don’t force them to repeatedly contact a harassed customer in order to achieve a mythical image of customer service.

Letting Go is Hard

It’s hard for a parent to let go and trust their children to behave safely. It’s hard for a general to put his carefully shaped strategy in the hands of subordinates. It’s hard for a manager to leave others to make decisions that they know they could make.

But ultimately, letting go of control, replacing it with purpose and doctrine, will lead to happier and more effective employees.

Ever since the arrival of Generation X (Gen X), there’s been a wealth of analysis on what each new generation of employees wants. The information is there for us to use, the strategies are simple, and we all nod our heads sagely whenever we hear that Gen X want authenticity while millennials want flexibility.

But for all this knowledge, there’s a huge gap between what we as leaders know and what we do.

Millennials Want Flexible Working

Let’s start with the wave of employees businesses are most focused on right now – the millennial generation. Born in the 1980s, they’ve been raised on the hype of freedom and flexibility, the idea espoused by both left-wing social liberals and right-wing economic liberals that you can and should create the lifestyle you want.

Making this a reality means flexible working, and many companies are trying, or claiming, to provide this. But the reality doesn’t live up to the hype. Recent research by EY found that one in six millennials had suffered negative consequences from using flexible working, facing negative impacts on their careers, while 47% said that their hours had increased in the past five years, a change that makes it harder to work in a flexible, balanced way.

The Smartphone Generation Want Personalization

Attention is starting to turn toward the upcoming Generation Z, sometimes referred to as the iGeneration. Brought up in a world of smartphones, internet access and social media marketing, this generation wants and expects things to be personalized for them, as shown in recent research by Schneider Associates and The Pollack PR Marketing Group. Joan Schneider has provided insightful if unsurprising analysis into how marketers can make use of this, and as I’ve discussed in my book Nothing Short of a Necessity, marketers are often the first to learn these lessons, and other areas of business need to learn from their insight.

When looking at the iGeneration as employees, this means that we cannot take them and try to fit them into existing approaches to work, or in some cases even job roles. If we are to retain employees of this generation and get the most out of them, we need to adapt around their skills and personalities. It’s flexible working taken even further, and having failed to live up to the flexibility challenge, we’ll find this one even harder.

Generation X Want the Genuine

This disconnect between what we provide and what the up-coming generations want isn’t down to lack of effort. After all, thousands of hours have been spent analyzing and discussing millennials and implementing strategies built around them.

So what’s going wrong?

To understand that it helps if we take a step back and look at Generation X. One of the most often repeated truths about Gen X is that they want leaders to be genuine. It’s such a common insight that it’s now talked about as an across-the-board necessity, and yet it’s one we often don’t live up to. Think about the last time you went on a communication and persuasion course, or prepared for a big presentation. Was it really all about being open and genuine, or were there things you were exaggerating and trying to hide?

We avoid being truly genuine because that means taking the risk of opening up and, in doing so, exposing ourselves to risk. It’s the same reason we don’t take flexible working far enough or genuinely adapt around the needs of employees – because it’s risky, and we fear risk.

But if we aren’t willing to take those risks, to be open, adaptable and willing to build business around our individual employees, then we’re never going to provide the leadership future generations demand.

Why do you want to be a leader? For the money, the control and the swanky office? Or for the difference you can make to the world along the way?

If it’s the former then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, because real leadership isn’t about the destination – the prestigious job and the office suite. It’s an activity, and treating it that way is the only way you’ll get real satisfaction from your work.

Why You’ll Never Reach That Peak

Treating leadership as a prize, something prestigious you’ll get for your hard work, means aiming for a goal that doesn’t exist.

One reason is obvious, or should be if we stop to think about it. Leadership is hard work. Once you get there, you’ll always have more to do. It isn’t the reward for your work – it is the work. Once you reach the dizzy heights, whatever your field, you’ll have to keep working to stay there. Staying on the peak is a balancing act.

But the other reason is that the idea of reaching “the top” is illusory. Power and prestige are relative. However high you reach, someone will always have more than you. If your satisfaction is based on owning that power then you’ll never be happy, because there’ll always be more that you could have. There’ll always be someone doing better than you.

Why You Shouldn’t Want To

This gets into why that status and power isn’t any more desirable than it is realistic. To be human isn’t to stay still. We don’t get to become a complete, whole person and then stay that way. We’re always growing, always changing, always aging. Being a successful human being is an activity not a destination, whether you’re a leader or not.

If you can’t aspire to a final goal then what can you aspire to?

The answer is to achieve as much as you can along the way. Some of that will be personal satisfaction from completing activities, setting work in motion and seeing its results. There’s a satisfaction that comes from doing anything well, from washing the dishes to leading a corporation.

The other part is to do as much good as you can for others along the way. We all return to dust one day, but the good we do lives on beyond us. It also creates a better society for us to live in while we’re here.

How to Keep Moving

This can sound a little dispiriting. After all, if there’s no destination then why not just stay where you are?

That’s a valid option if, like a Buddhist monk, you just want to escape the cycle of existence. But if you want something more, if you want to enjoy this life you have, then the answer is to keep on moving.

Don’t look at what’s already in place and accept it as is. Look at what you could make that’s better. Be willing to smash things as they are to create something even more awesome.

Recognize that your mind, like your body, is in a constant state of change. It can get better or it can get worse, so find activities to help it grow.

Recognize that the people you look up to have not reached some lofty and distant destination of power, because no such destination exists. Recognizing that, just like you, they’re on a journey of constant change and creativity can help to take them off the pedestal and flatten the impostor syndrome that holds many of us back. Because if leadership is an activity, not a destination, then it’s just as valid for you to be where you are as for your heroes to be where they are.

How to do the Most Good Along the Way

And how can you do the most good along this journey?

Recognize that, if there are no end destinations, then the end never justifies the means. Each activity is an end, a beginning and a part of the journey. They should always be evaluated in terms of their impact.

Recognize the gap between can and will. “Can” is wasted potential until it’s turned into action. “Will” is when you make that potential part of your journey. The moment you sit back and say that the ability to do something is as good as doing it, you’re thinking in terms of destinations, not actions.

Help others to turn their potential into action. As a leader, don’t look at where your employees are now but where they could be travelling. How can they improve? How can they progress? And what will you do to fill the gap when they move on? If you treat their position as their destination, you’ll be disappointed when they turn it into a step along their path.

Leadership is a journey. The end result isn’t a pedestal to sit on, but a line of footprints marking your passage. So don’t worry about that pedestal, and instead consider how to leave the best trail you can.