The question “What makes a Leader?” has always intrigued us. Such a simple question, and yet there has been so much written about this topic and so little that we all agree on. Typical answers to this question would revolve around concepts like intelligence, mental toughness, resolve, vision, technical skills, analytical thinking and so on. But are leaders actually wired differently from the rest? 

Psychologist and best selling author, Daniel Goleman introduced the dimension of Emotional Intelligence and defined it in terms of qualities including self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and social skill. These “unbusinesslike” qualities were found to directly correlate leadership and tangible business results that exceeded the norm. 

In the past five years, research in neuroscience has come up with significant insights into what actually goes on in the brain when human beings interact and this could lead to a whole new understanding of the Biology of Leadership.

In my earlier blog on Social Intelligence, a correlation between social skills and effective team dynamics was created and I urged readers to ask themselves a few questions to understand where they stand in the continuum of Social Intelligence. Its time to dig a little deeper. One of the more interesting discoveries in recent times in the field of neuroscience involves mirror neurons. Accidently discovered in Italy, in monkeys, these neurons are what makes us mimic the behavior of other people that we are in contact with. Leaders tend to act in certain ways and through mirror neurons, team members tend to emulate those behaviors creating an overall environment of high performance. Recent research has also shown that these behaviors when coupled with positive emotional signals (smiles, nods), as opposed to negative signals (frowns) tended to strengthen the “mimicry” observed. If leaders want to create truly high performance teams, they need to not only exhibit strong leadership behavior, but also ensure that it is coupled with positivity. 

Other findings include the discovery of a class of neurons called spindle cells that are now known to be responsible for intuition – that gut feel about whether to trust someone or not. Another set of neurons, called oscillators, understood to have an impact on physical resonance – think of when two musicians play together in perfect harmony. 

While it is not yet understood how to actually influence the existence of these super neurons, or how to get them to fire more, it is widely believed that the only change we can make to become better leaders is a change in behavior. While lasting change (especially in behavior) is extremely hard, organizations globally are investing billions of dollars in trying to get people to not only think, but also act differently. In a world where the complexity of staying ahead in business is multiplying everyday, it might seem a little too “soft” to focus on upping the game when it comes to social intelligence. Biology and constant discoveries in neuroscience could prove after all that soft skills like social intelligence could make a world of difference when it comes to creating the next generation of high performing leaders.