Leadership and Neuroscience

I was at a very interesting talk at Squire Sanders through Birmingham Forward last night. The speaker was Amy Brann of Synaptic Potential.

The subject is huge, so obviously Amy was only able to provide an overview, but tying some scientific theory to the more traditional observational approach to leadership was useful.

One point she made was that micromanaging people tends to set off the threat response. This increases the use of both oxygen and glucose, decreasing mental functioning. At the same time, cortisol is released, slowing thinking and decreasing immunity.

Tied to this is the need for autonomy, or at least perceived autonomy. 3M allow researchers to spend 15% of their time on their own research, while Google allow 20%. This version of motivated autonomy has produced the PostIt Note and Gmail, among other products.

Again this is not new, but neuroscience is justifying (and sometimes challenging) the observational work.

The science also provides ways to manipulate clients and staff, again nothing new in itself. How far this is ethical is an interesting question. It strikes me that there are so many people trying to manipulate me (shops, charities, the media, spammers, sales people) that it triggers my own threat response!

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Leadership Lessons: Battle of Jena 1806

I was at a leadership event at Birmingham Business School a fortnight ago, and one of the speakers mentioned this battle. I am ashamed that I cannot name him in the absence of the promised slides.

The battle is not well-known in Britain, and took place between Napoleon and Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia. The Prussians were defeated, and their shattered armies captured over the following weeks, the French entered Berlin, and Prussia was replaced as France’s major enemy by Russia.

This was not just a battle with huge consequences for Prussia, but a turning point in German history.

Why did the Prussians lose so badly? Firstly, they were overconfident, and were hide bound in their tactics. Secondly, command was divided, and the commanders had to hold meetings to decide what to do. Thirdly, having not decided what to do, their quasi-feudal command structure gave little initiative to commanders on the ground.

By contrast, although Napoleon was in overall charge, and could command the entire army, he gave a degree of autonomy to his generals, enabling them to act swiftly and decisively to the situation in front of them. This had its downside – Marshall Bernadotte was almost sacked on the spot because he did not join in the fight.

As a result of such a crushing defeat, the Prussian army reformed itself to such good effect that Prussia and then Germany became the major European military power. They also studied French tactics, particularly their quick deployment, refining this into the concept of Blitzkrieg. That in turn was studied by the British and Americans after 1945.

What has this to do with running a law firm post Legal Services Act? Recognise that things are not like they were, your “enemy” is different, and so are their tactics. Decide your plan, and do not hold interminable meetings. Move swiftly. Delegate the power to act within the plan. Above all, do not pretend that there is no attack on you.