Good Leader v bad – it’s all to do with how the brain is used

By Timothy Maurice Webster

If you took the brain of a good leader versus a poor leader out their heads and put them on a table, would there be a difference?

This is the question neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart, author of Neuroscience for Leadership, answers in her research. A brain operating in a compromised state due to poor nutrition, sleep deprivation and extended exposure to stress, weakens a leader’s capacity to lead. Leaders attempting to steer their teams through complexity while operating with a brain that didn’t get enough sleep are doing so with less than their full IQ.

Swart’s work at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) marrying neuroscience and increased leadership capacity endeavours to challenge and offer leaders practical ways to get more out of their brains. Advances in the tools that study the brain enable the scientific community to measure cognitive function and offer insights into how to get the most out of our brains. While science still has a long way to go to fully unpack the full extent of the brain’s potential, we have enough evidence to prove many in leadership positions are not operating near their full potential. The consequences of a leader trying to lead without understanding the principles of optimal brain power are many.

Have you walked into a meeting and your boss snapped at the team without being provoked? Maybe you’re a leader and your tolerance levels for employee engagement have dropped below acceptable levels and you aren’t sure why? Ever made decisions that in retrospect could have been avoided if your mind were sharper when making the decision?

In Neuroscience for Leadership, Swart explores how a stressed-out leader can impact stress levels of colleagues through chemical transfer without saying a word – just by being in their presence.

We live in an era where the brain is taxed at unprecedented levels. From the increased flood of stimuli via the combination of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, information overload is a very real issue for those trying to lead with a clear head. The tools and techniques Swart speaks of in her book to empower the brain with more structural capacity or to increase what’s termed neuroplasticity (the ability for the brain to make more connections) are at our disposal.

As the world continues to right the wrongs of the past and more women are integrated at leadership levels, neuroscience tackles the issue of understanding the leadership abilities of male versus female brains. Swart and other neuroscientists are in agreement that the gender bias against women in leadership is not a function of women’s ability to lead but a patriarchal system that were designed to keep women from leading. Now that science has proven women have equal capacity to lead, are there any differences in their instinctual leadership styles?

Female leadership traits: Group problem-solver. Participative. Vocally encouraging. Help others express emotion. Inductive in problem solving.

Male traits: Personally problem solver. Hierarchical. Encourages less feeling and more action. Deductive in problem-solving.

What if all our leaders operated with a clear understanding of how to get the most out of their brains? Anyone who considers themselves a leader should open up to the advances of neuroscience to gain a firmer grasp on the power and potential of their brain.

Swart will be in Johannesburg on May 25, hosted by the Business Results Group. Find out more at

Webster is the author of brand leadership books and a columnist who consults and speaks on the science of human and brand behaviour. He studied at the Image Institute, Brookstone College, US and has a Certificate in Neuroscience for Leadership from MIT.

Dr Tara Swart is a renowned neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor and award-winning author.

This article originally featured in Sunday Independent 14 May 2017.