I was feeling a little cheeky at an executive leadership workshop I was facilitating on the topic of Leading Without Authority, and wanted to experiment with some insights I had gained from Dr. Daniel Goleman’s book entitled “Social Intelligence” where he talked about our “social brains.” After organizing participants into pairs, I huddled with one person from each pair and asked them to simply smile at their partner and watch what happens. They of course felt awkward but were thankfully willing to give it try. Back they went to their partners and simply looked at them and smiled. I let them go for about a minute, which felt like an eternity. Within about 15-20 seconds the partners they were smiling for all were grinning ear to ear and they stayed like this for the rest of the minute without knowing why. Of course I had to explain afterwards.
We have what neuroscientists call “mirror neurons” in our prefrontal cortex which govern activities such as speaking, movement and intention to act. These act like a continuous video camera taping what they observe in someone else then send messages to other parts of the brain that operate various motor functions and actually make us reflect back and mimic what is being observed. Our mirror neurons ‘fire’ as we observe someone else and, to some degree, make emotions ‘contagious’. Observed emotion in another’s face will activate that same emotion in you. Actors in movies do this to us all the time. In my exercise the non-smiling partner’s mirror neurons were “filming” their smiling partner’s smile and sending signals to their facial muscles to mimic what they saw, and with little awareness that they were mimicking their partner’s smile. Try as we might we can never really hide our intentions as the recipient “video camera” is always on documenting and feeding us information. This is but a small illustration of the incredible dexterity of how our “social brains” work, revealed through the recent explosion in neuroscience research. I personally and professionally find this exhilarating in terms of its application in my field of executive development.
As human beings we are constantly locked in an unconscious interpersonal dance that continuously affects the nature of our behaviour with each other. The subtleties of the most powerful elements that shape the nature of interpersonal exchange such as trust, empathy, authenticity, compassion, forgiveness and much more, all have a home in some part of our brain that informs our emotional and physical response. More importantly, we are generally unaware of the source of these reactions and we need to be.
Now back to the “born or made” question and stay with me here for my concluding thoughts. Through the research I have outlined in both parts of this blog, I have shown that the genes we inherit from our birth parents informs the physical, emotional and physiological framework we develop into – not only for obvious things like our height, eye colour and vocal tones, but also for everything from how our kidneys, endocrine system and even our brain functions. Such research has now also taught us that that mental illnesses such a bi-polar, ADD, OCD and others are in fact bio-physical conditions related to brain function that are inherited at birth and NOT a result of character flaws, poor parenting or bad economic environments.
Furthermore, the evidence is overwhelming that we inherit, what I would call, a genetic framework that is a predisposition for our expression of personality – our expression “sandbox” per se. What we do with what we inherit as our framework then becomes more the issue. As you can see, “Are leaders born or made?” is really not the right question. It is much too binary. The key question becomes, “What do we do with what we inherit?” Now we are getting somewhere! We need not be “trapped” by what we have inherited in our personality framework, no more than we should be impeded by our eye colour or whether we have diabetes or not. Ultimately, successful leaders take what they have and make something out of it.