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Knowledge is Power: Understanding Brain Science Matters in Leadership Development

understanding brain science

understanding brain science

Why Understanding Brain Science Matters

In this brief video clip, Daniel Goleman and Daniel Siegel discuss the value of understanding brain science behind effective leadership.

Understanding equals power – the power to recognize ineffective behavior and to choose actions that work. For leaders, this means having access to a range of styles suitable for different situations. Coaches and other leadership development professionals can use knowledge of brain science to target their work, and enhance their credibility.

The Key to Understanding Brain Science: Brains Can Change

A key message from neuroscientific research is that the brain is plastic, changing with repeated experiences, practice, and learning. In Brainpower, Dr. Goleman and Dr. Siegel share insights from leading researchers about how to change your brain through specific training programs.

In a special preview of Brainpower, Dr. Goleman explains research by Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, who has shown there are three distinct wiring patterns in the brain for different kinds of empathy. Any type of leadership role requires use of empathy to maintain good relationships. Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute has designed training programs for the empathy circuitry that produce positive changes. And Daniel Siegel’s “wheel of awareness” exercise helps boost brain integration.

understanding brain science

Preview Brainpower: Mindsight and Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

This excerpt from Brainpower: Mindsight and Emotional Intelligence in Leadership includes two segments from the Lead with Empathy chapter. The first segment features Daniel Goleman and the second is with Daniel Siegel. (Brainpower is also available as an audio download.)

In the first segment, Daniel Goleman uses examples from the daily work of leaders to explain:

  • The three types of empathy
  • How the social brain works
  • Research on the impact of empathy in business settings

In the second section, Daniel Siegel responds to Dr. Goleman’s comments, describing groundbreaking research on the neuroscience of empathy and how to harness the power of the social brain.

Go here to stream a free exclusive excerpt of Brainpower.

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The Brain’s Role in Making Ethical Decisions

ethical decision making
ethical decision making
Source: iStock/mattjeacock

How can a leader’s intention steer a company toward – or away from – a society-harming path?

What happens to our own sense of ethics when people around us make morally questionable choices?

What’s going on in your brain when you face a moral dilemma?

How can emotional intelligence and Mindsight help us build our moral muscles?

These are a few of the questions Daniel Goleman and Daniel Siegel explored in their first of Brainpower webcasts. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

A Leader’s Intention

Dr. Goleman addressed the power of leaders to make ethical decisions that impact the direction of their company:

Is there something fundamentally undeveloped in a human who cannot know when they’re behaving immorally? That really speaks to a deficit in the ethical system and the literature I’m familiar with describes what’s called the Dark Triad. These are people who are Machiavellian or very manipulative or sociopaths, like Bernie Madoff, who can play people in a bad way. The common underlying deficit from a neural point of view is very often prefrontal cortex damage. Dr. Raine and colleagues at the University of Southern California found that a history of brain damage in this area impacts moral decision making. I don’t know that we can use that to explain Bernie Madoff, but Dan, I’d love to hear what you think. What is undeveloped in someone who has moral lapses?

Dr. Siegel responded:

To think about it from a brain point of view, as an individual, your brain makes lots of maps: maps of what you see and hear, linguistic maps, all sorts of maps. One of those maps is a Mindsight map. You can make a Mindsight map of yourself, what’s going on inside of you. That’s the basis of insight. It includes mapping past, present, and future. You can make a Mindsight map of the other person. That’s the empathy map where I wonder what’s going on in another person. A third kind of map is a Mindsight map of we, honoring the differences and promoting linkages. It’s the basis of morality and there are different aspects of neural studies that support this idea.

Our Ethics in Conflict with Others’ Choices

The two talked about the moral norms of organizations and situations where our ethics conflict with those of the people around us. Goleman said,

If you look at Volkswagon, for example, where for years and years many people colluded to design a device, which defeated the ability for a government to monitor whether a car produced too many toxins in its exhaust. That went on for a long, long time. Many people in the business world are caught in the moral tension between individual ethics and the imperative to make money at any cost. This can create moral dilemmas of all kinds for people. No matter what your own moral rudder may tell you, if people around you are acting very differently and you want to keep your job, feed your kids, send your children to college, and you have your own fears, couldn’t it override that moral north pole?

Our Brains and Moral Choices

Dr. Siegel discussed some of the neurobiology that is at play when we face moral dilemmas.

There may be just innate, inborn reasons you don’t have what’s called a conscience, realizing you are part of a larger connected whole. Your brain may not have developed the necessary integrative circuits. Also, some studies of attachment suggest you can block the development of morality through certain attachment patterns where there isn’t honoring the differences between a child and a parent.

There’s a difference between amorality – lack of morality – and immorality where you commit violent acts towards others. The absence of morality isn’t the presence of violence. However, if a person’s filled with anger and also they’ve had a blockage of the development of morality, then there can be a violent act. There are lots of reasons for that. There’s a very painful and powerful book called “Ghosts from the Nursery.” It is about how many people on death row had not just emotional abuse and neglect, but physical injury to the brain. Such injury may have cut off some of the integrative circuits of the prefrontal region that allow maps of morality, Mindsight maps of “we,” to be made. When you combine having a lot of rage with the absence of a sense of connection to others, that’s a pretty dangerous combination.

Mindsight and Emotional Intelligence Can Build Moral Muscles

Dr. Siegel said,

If you are highly intelligent, you can manipulate numbers, you can do physics, chemistry, biology, even psychology of certain sorts. That is all “physical sight.” Physical sight allows you to figure out how to make a profit. Without the Mindsight map of connections to others, you can use your physical sight to manipulate governments so they can’t monitor what’s going on in a car and can get away making more money. Now, it’s not just VW. There are many other examples, such as the Wall Street system of mortgaging described in the movie The Big Short. We all experience that.

Greed is a factor of physical sight. How much stuff can I get? Mindsight and the emotional and social intelligence it creates allow you to feel moral challenges inside your own body. You would say, “This act we’re doing to deceive the government.” Bernie Madoff lacked the Mindsight to recognize the immorality of his act of taking money from non-profit organizations that are trying to help others and private investors, so he could rip them off. That shows a lack of social and emotional intelligence, a lack of kindness, compassion, and empathy.

Additional Resources

Fortunately, there are many resources available for people who want to increase their empathy and compassion. Tania Singer and her colleague have created training programs to do just that. Howard Gardner and Daniel Goleman discussed ways to develop an ethical mind in our discussion for Leadership: A Master Class. Richard E. Boyatzis and Goleman wrote about “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership” for the September 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review.

leadership development

Brainpower: Mindsight and Emotional Intelligence in Leadership, provides leaders, executive coaches, management consultants, and HR professionals with a science basis for their leadership development work. Register for the live four-part webcast series with Daniel Goleman and Daniel Siegel throughout February here. The high-definition recordings for each webcast are available to stream shortly after each broadcast.



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Why Brain Science Matters in Leadership Development

leadership development
leadership development
Image: iStock/kmlmtz66

Leadership Development for the 21st Century

An effective ship captain makes sure his vessel’s systems are optimized to provide the best performance. As a leader, your brain is the navigational system steering the ship. To guide your organization in the right direction, you must optimize your brain and how you use it.

Science provides us with new information about optimal brain performance. Understanding how top-functioning brains work allows managers to choose leadership styles that enhance their ability to effectively focus on and perform their job. It also helps them seek out the right development partners. Just like a ship captain chooses the best experts to maintain and repair the ship’s systems, a wise leader will hire an executive coach or leadership development professional who understands the neuroscience behind their work to better provide the direction each leader needs.

Not Sure That Understanding Brain Science Matters?

Chances are you know a leader like this: Chris was furious after reading an email message saying a key project would miss its deadline. Chris stomped down the hall to the message’s sender and blew up, yelling “Missing this deadline is NOT an option! You all need to do whatever it takes to make sure we meet it!”

And, you must know (or have been) the people working for a leader like Chris. Some leaders think nothing of being tyrants, harshly ordering people around. On the surface, this might seem like it works. Employees will go along with whatever the alpha boss orders. But inside they’re saying, “I hate working for him.” That mindset does little to motivate a normally productive team.

In a recent article, Daniel Goleman explains that Chris’s behavior is caused by a particular brain system.

“Take that executive who lashes out, alienating the very people she depends on for her own success. Research by neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux at New York University tells us such emotional hijacks suggest an amygdala insufficiently controlled by the prefrontal cortex. That pattern of amygdala hijacks can be seen in toddlers, many teenagers – and quite a few executives. In the case of kids and teens, the normal maturation of the brain’s self-management circuitry should take care of the problem. For the executive, this could call for some focused work with a coach.”

A Wise Coach’s Strategy

Now, imagine you’re Chris and the CEO told you to work with a coach, Pat, on your leadership style. Your reaction? “Whatever! My style is fine!” But you’ll do what the boss says.

Pat realizes Chris needs convincing. And, Pat knows his knowledge of the neuroscience behind his advice will help. Pat doesn’t pull suggestions out of thin air. His coaching is based on understanding brain systems and using that information to make changes in leaders’ actions. He also knows leaders who understand brain science are more likely to buy in to change.

When Pat met with Chris, he said, “Your department has been very successful this past year, but I can help you accomplish even more. To motivate your employees to give their all, it helps to understand how minds work and how to manage ourselves and use a style that motivates employees to give their all. Science tells us about styles of relating that are very effective at inspiring and motivating people. And, more motivation equals more productivity. The good news is that brains can change with repeated practice and exercise. Let’s put this data to work for you.”

leadership development

Brainpower: Mindsight and Emotional Intelligence in Leadership provides leaders, executive coaches, management consultants, and HR professionals with a science basis for their leadership development work. The live four-part webcast series with Daniel Goleman and Daniel Siegel takes place at 3:00pm – 4:00pm EST on the following dates:

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Registrants will have access to the recorded discussions shortly after each broadcast.







Daniel Siegel

Dr. Siegel is the clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, a faculty member of the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, and the executive director of the Mindsight Institute. The Mindsight Institute is an educational organization offering online and in-person lectures/courses that focus on how developing mindsight can be beneficial to individuals, families, and communities. He believes that examining the intersection of human relationships and basic biological processes is of utmost importance, as executed in his psychotherapy practices with children, adolescents, adults, couples, and families. He also serves as the Medical Director of the LifeSpan Learning Institute, and on the advisory board at the Blue School in NYC, which has based its curriculum around Siegel’s Mindsight approach. He is also the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association (among several other honorary fellowships).

Siegel’s ability to condense highly complex scientific data into readily understandable information has transformed into a frequently sought after lecturer and speaker across the world. He has addressed diverse local, national, and international groups of mental health professionals, neuroscientists, corporate leaders, educators, parents, public administrators, policy-makers, mediators, judges, and clergy. He has spoken before the King of Thailiand, Pope John Paul II, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Google University, London’s Royal Society of the Arts, and several TEDx talks. His words and wisdom have appeared most notably in Business Insider, Forbes, Huffington Post, NPR, The New York Times (where he is also on the bestseller list for both The Whole Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline), and Psychology Today.

Dr. Siegel earned his B.S in Biological Sciences at UCLA, his medical degree from Harvard University, and his postgraduate education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He currently resides in southern California with his family.

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At Key Step Media, Siegel is a conversationalist in The Executive Edge: An Insider’s Guide to Outstanding Leadership, a long book containing Daniel Goleman’s in-depth conversations with respected leaders in executive management, organizational research, workplace psychology, negotiation, and senior hiring. The Executive Edge examines the best practices of top-performing executives. It offers practical guidance for developing the distinguishing competencies that make a leader outstanding.

Every leader needs threshold abilities to get by at work. But in today’s complex business landscape, getting by isn’t enough. It’s the distinguishing competencies that are crucial for success. You need elements that will give you “the executive edge.”


Siegel is a guest lecturer on Daniel Goleman”˜s Leadership: A Master Class (DVD, Streaming Video, Training Guide)His segment is called, The Leader’s Mind. In this hour-long video, Siegel and Goleman explain the brain processes behind the most essential aspects of emotional intelligence and leadership (self-mastery, self-awareness, and resonance), and how leaders can use this understanding to optimize their leadership style.

Leadership: A Master Class is a part of the most in-depth program from our HR and EI Collection, the C-Suite Toolkit. It also includes What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters by Goleman and Resonant Leadership by Boyatzis.


Siegel is also a featured speaker in Goleman’s Wired to Connect: Dialogues on Social Intelligence conversations. Siegel’s segment, Better Parents, Better Spouses, Better People, the pair explore how our relationships shape our emotional habits – and the brain itself. This conversation helps us understand how our parents’ behavior impacts our mental, neural, and social development. You’ll learn how self-reflection and awareness transform relationships, and discover how emotional habits can change at any age. Siegel and Goleman explain how we can free ourselves from the hold of our past to create richer, more balanced relationships.


Other Publications:

The Whole Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind     â—Š     No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos     â—Š     Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain     â—Š     Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children (10th Anniversary Edition)     â—Š      Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation     â—Š     The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are     â—Š     The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration     â—Š     Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology     â—Š     The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being     â—Š     The Neurobiology of ‘We’     â—Š      Healing Moments in Psychotherapy (Norton)