Using the most recent research in neuroscience as a springboard for talking about leadership skills seems, at first, to be a strange pairing. I admit that I expected to be bogged down by the science and to glean little practical information from the text. But The Brain Advantage by Van Hecke, Callahan, Kolar, and Paller failed to meet my expectations, and I was thrilled.
This book uses the research it offers to start a conversation about leadership, never browbeating the reader into believing, without question, that what they say must apply to all leaders, all the time. The authors respect the fact that every leader operates in a different environment; that by their very nature, interpersonal styles and situations are personal, and the ways that each circumstance is dealt with will inevitably differ significantly from person to person. And neither does this book ask us to understand the research for the sake of pure knowledge. Instead, we are asked to use what we learn about how the human brain works to become better partners, communicators, and leaders, both for the sake of ourselves and for the sake of our relationships with others.
Each section of the book focused on a different topic: innovation, relationships, culture, decision making, personal effectiveness, and the implications of this research for the future. Using a smart, accessible format, the authors of The Brain Advantage begin every chapter by grounding the research in an anecdote, illustrating for the readers how the subject under discussion fits into the real world. Once they have taught us whatever they intended us to know, they move on to a section entitled “Interesting, but so what?” where we learn how to apply this new knowledge to our lives.
The Brain Advantage also humbly acknowledges that brain science is still an emerging field. As we learn more about how the brain works, we will be able to integrate what we know now with what we will come to know, and we will be able to use that knowledge in a more holistic way. But regardless of what future research may teach us, the principles that these authors present are sound: treat others with sensitivity and be respectful of the differences between you; understand that instinct frequently makes choices for us before our conscious minds have a chance to speak up; realize that our brains are elastic and that learning new things, although difficult, keeps our minds healthy, active, and nimble; be aware that trust is difficult to establish and easy to damage; and so on.
Although The Brain Advantage purports to be a book written for those in positions of leadership, I believe it to be equally valuable for those who are not. The information provided is applicable to relationships of all kinds, regardless of whether those relationships are professional or personal; the authors seek to create genuine empathy for others through a scientific understanding of the mind. And empathy isn’t one-sided. Although it is written from the perspective of a leader, this text also has the ability to provide individuals (employees or otherwise) with deeper insight into the reasons why people make the decisions that they do; there is power in knowing, and this knowledge gives people the power to make educated choices about how, when, and where to interact with others.