image of neurons

image of neurons

While attending the TOC-ICO conference in Las Vegas last month a friend of mine gave me a copy of an interesting article.  The article is entitled the Neuroscience of Leadership and is a great introduction to what I believe is a subject matter that effective leaders must understand (either intuitively, through trial and error, or through conscious study.)

In a previous post I wrote about an embarrassing moment for me at a recent meeting of our local City Council.  It was at that meeting that I distributed copies of this article to each member of the City Council and to any members of the Staff that wanted them.

So what’s the relevance of this article, or of neuroscience in general, to my local city council?  Here’s the deal as I see it.

I started attending Council meetings sometime in 2006.  It took only a couple of meetings to realize that the members of the Council (“CMs”) were at war with each other.  I was surprised by the level of hostility and contempt that they showed each other.  Perhaps that speaks more to my naivete than anything else.  I had always heard that politics was a blood sport, but was shocked to find it even in my small city of about ten thousand people.

I eventually came to understand that in a recent election a new group of CMs had been elected.  They were known as the “Slate.”  The previously-elected CMs had been labeled, somewhat derisively, as the “Legacy” council members.  Each group (or tribe, if you are a fan of Great Boss, Dead Boss, as I am) also had its peripheral group of citizen supporters.  It was disappointing, but not unexpected, to see that they would also fan the flames at various times.

Let me ask you to put yourself in the shoes of one of the CMs.  You are on the Council and so appear on a dais in front of the general public three times a month.  You are sincere in your beliefs and are genuinely trying to do what you believe will serve the citizens.

And yet, no matter what you say, members of the other tribe twist your words.  Note, it really doesn’t matter who started it.  What matters is that all of a sudden, your statement is being bent like a pretzel to give it some kind of meaning which you never intended.  Not only that, you are being verbally attacked by members of the other tribe.

Can you imagine doing this three times a month for a year or more?  I cannot.  Note that these attacks did not only occur during Council meetings.  They also occurred on websites where people would post dishonest and hurtful messages about members of the other tribe.  Almost always anonymously, of course.

So where does neuroscience enter into this?

Let’s assume that you are a member of tribe “A”.  You have just been attacked (unjustly, in your eyes, of course) by a member of “B” tribe.  You cannot yet respond to the attack because Robert’s Rules of Order are forcing you to keep your mouth shut.  And so, you sit there, seething, and waiting for your chance to strike back.  This situation occurs several times at each meeting.

When the meeting finally adjourns (often, around 11:30PM at night) you drive home.  In the car you begin to replay the events of the evening.  You dwell on the attacks you experienced.  You think about your enemies — the people who seem hell-bent on destroying your good name.

When you get home you recount the night’s events with your spouse.  Eventually, you decide to go to bed.  Now comes the real neuroscience.

As you sleep, your brain, which was evolved to ensure your survival, gets down to business.  It replays the days most important events and works to make sense of them (to incorporate them into your memories and other aspects of mind, such as emotions.)  As this happens, night after night, your brain and “who you are” changes.

Thereafter, when you (a member of “A” tribe) sees a member of “B” tribe, you no longer see a fellow council member.  Instead, you see an enemy.  The act of seeing the enemy evokes an emotional response.  You can’t help it, of course, because your brain and your being has been altered by a biological mechanism that works to ensure your survival.

Now, if the member of B tribe tries to communicate with you, how will you interpret his words?  Will you hear them accurately?  When you would normally give someone the benefit of the doubt, will you do the same for him?

The answer in my experience is “Absolutely not.”  In my experience and understanding, everything the member of “B” tribe says or does will be filtered through the lens of “this man is my enemy.”

Most of our face-to-face communication with others is non-verbal.  No matter how hard you work to control your words, your body language will almost certainly communicate a hostile or posture back to the member of tribe “B.”  This will almost certainly put him into attack mode as well.  And so, ultimately, the underlying conflict will be reinforced.

I believe this is a large part of the mechanism involved in creating and maintaining “chronic conflict.”  In one of my first attempts to speak during Public Comment, back in 2006, I noted that the Council was “at each other’s throats, almost constantly.”  I think that was an apt description.

From a slightly different perspective, I think it would be reasonable to viewing these noble individuals (the CMs) as suffering from a kind of psychological trauma.  I don’t mean to overstate the case or imply any kind of weakness on their part.  But how can someone put up with such abuse for such a long period of time and not be changed by it?  That’s my question.

And so this is the tie-in to neuroscience.  I would literally cringe as other citizens would, from time to time, speak during public comment and demand that the CMs just “grow up” and “get over it.”  Some of the abuse our CMs took was really, really harsh.  And so, to my fellow citizens, I have to say that with respect, I don’t think the situation is that simple.  I don’t think people can just “get over it” in this case.

In closing, I hope you will consider taking half an hour or so and reading this article.  It could be a great starting point for your own journey into a fascinating and important subject matter.