The Neurobiology of Leadership

Brains, leadership and belief

In the summer of 1963, a quarter of a million people showed up at the mall in Washington D.C. to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak.

Dr. King was not the only man in America who was a great orator.

Nor was he the only man who suffered in a pre-civil rights America.

But he had a gift.

He did not tell people what needed to change in America.

He told people what he believed; and the people who believed what he believed took his cause, made it their own, and created structures to get the word out to others such that 250,000 people showed up on the right day and at the right time to hear him speak.

Many traveled long distances to Washington for what they themselves believed about America. It was not about black versus white: 25% of the audience was white. 

Higher authority

Dr King believed that there were two types of laws in the world: those that are made by a higher authority and those that are made by men; and not until all the laws that are made by men are consistent with the laws that are made by the higher authority will we live in a just world. It just so happens that the civil-rights movement was the perfect vehicle to help him bring his cause to life. 

There are leaders, and there are those who lead

Dr King gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech. We listen to politicians now with their comprehensive 12-point plans. That is not leadership and it is not inspiring anybody.

Today, there are leaders, and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority, but those who lead inspire us. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves.

Those who start with a belief have the ability to inspire those around them and to find others who inspire them.    

Is the brain wired for beliefs? 

Until recently, the task of applying what we know about the brain to the bigger question of personal human experience has been avoided by scientists.

However, the emergence of the new discipline of neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system – is helping us to bridge this gap by providing new ways to answer such old questions as why beliefs are so important to us.

One answer is that the brain is wired to make predictions about what is going to happen next based on what has happened in the past, and in some ways, predictions are like beliefs. For instance, scientists write about scientific predictions as if they are beliefs or explanations that are pre-emptively offered to anticipate and explain the world as we see it. 

Uncertainty can make you sick

Knowing that the brain is wired for prediction explains why we find uncertainty so stressful and if it persists, it can actually make us sick. In this way, religious beliefs can reduce the uncertainty of our own experiences by explaining the unexplainable. This also accounts for why those things we now explain through science were once thought of as magic or caused by a deity. 

Meaning is not innate and must be manufactured

The explanation that the brain is wired for prediction is a general explanation to understanding how we make meaning. The brain of a newborn is not just a miniature version of an adult brain. Its wiring is incomplete. What infants are doing is waiting for a set of wiring instructions from the world. In this way, the people who raised you influenced the wiring of your brain including what to believe and what is meaningful to you. 

We have one self-creating freedom 

As we mature into adulthood, we have one self-creating freedom in that we can accept or reject these instructions. In this way, a person is what he makes himself to be, and those who lead and inspire us help facilitate this process.

We follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. We have to value this self-creating freedom that is enjoyed in our time.

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