The Science Behind Leadership

24 May The Science Behind Leadership

At this critical time in the Veterinary Sector history, many are seeking alternatives to the traditional command-and-control models of leadership. Neuroscience is highlighting some of the biological underpinnings of women’s natural leadership talents. A myriad of diverse factors contribute to leadership performance in both women and men, including an individual’s personality traits, thinking and feeling styles, values, motivations, childhood experiences, and cultural environment. Nevertheless, a great deal of scientific evidence has now demonstrated that in some respects the sexes are, on average, not alike.

For centuries, men and women did different jobs, tasks that required different skills. As natural selection weeded out less able workers, time carved differences in the male and female brain. No two human beings are alike. Countless cultural forces influence how men and women think and act. Each one of us is an elaborate mix of both male and female traits. Yet, on average, each sex has its own range of abilities; each is a living archive of its distinctive past. Neuroscientific research has identified some talents that women express more regularly than men; aptitudes that stem, in part, from women’s brain architecture and brain chemicals, skills that leadership theorists now promote as essential to leadership effectiveness. These talents are not exclusive to women, of course, yet women display them more regularly than men.

Men and women should be equal in terms of their rights to opportunities to exercise their full potential, but they are not identical in their innate abilities. Whether men and women are equal is a political and moral question, but whether they are identical is a scientific one. While there are essentially no disparities in general intelligence between the sexes, a neuroscience study by the University of California has found significant differences in brain areas where males and females manifest their intelligence.

The study shows women having more white matter and men more grey matter related to intellectual skill, revealing that no single neuroanatomical structure determines general intelligence and that different types of brain designs are capable of producing equivalent intellectual performance. “These findings suggest that human evolution has created two different types of brains designed for equally intelligent behaviour,” said Professor Richard Haier, Professor of Psychology and long-time human intelligence researcher, who led the study with colleagues at UCI and the University of New Mexico.

In general, men have approximately 6.5 times the amount of grey matter related to general intelligence than women, and women have nearly 10 times the amount of white matter related to intelligence than men. Grey matter represents information processing centres in the brain, and white matter represents the networking of – or connections between – these processing centres.

Women tend to generalise and to take a broader, more holistic, more contextual perspective of any issue. They tend to think in webs of factors – or ‘web thinking’. Men are more likely to focus their attention on one thing at a time. They tend to compartmentalise relevant material, discard what they regard as superfluous data, and analyse information in a more linear, causal path. This male pattern of thinking is referred to as ‘step thinking’.

We are beginning to know how these capacities for web thinking and step thinking are created. The female brain has more nerve cables connecting the two brain hemispheres; the male brain is more compartmentalised, so sections operate more independently. Moreover, testosterone tends to focus one’s attention. Women’s lower levels of this hormone may contribute to their broader, more contextual view.

Women’s tendency for web thinking probably evolved millions of years ago when ancestral females needed to do many things at once to rear their young, whereas men’s step thinking probably emerged as ancestral hunters focused on the pursuit of game. Both web thinking and step thinking are still valuable, but in the contemporary business community, buzzwords include “depth of vision,” “breadth of vision,” and “systems thinking.” In this highly complex marketplace, a contextual view is a distinct asset. Women are built to employ this perspective. In fact, in one study of Fortune 500 companies, senior executives were asked to describe women’s most outstanding business contribution. Their consensus: women’s more varied, less conventional point of view. Women’s web thinking provides them with other natural leadership qualities. According to social scientists and business analysts, women are better able to tolerate ambiguity- a trait that most likely stems from their ability to hold several things simultaneously in mind.

And if we had to sum up the modern veterinary practice environment in one word, we would probably call it… ambiguous!

Women are well endowed for this indefinite business climate.  Women’s web thinking also enables them to exercise more intuition- and intuition plays a productive, if often unrecognised, role in managerial decision making. This mental capacity has been explained by psychologist Herbert Simon. He maintains that as people learn how to analyse the stock market, run a business, or follow a political issue, they begin to recognise the patterns involved and mentally organise this data into blocks of knowledge, a process Simon calls “chunking”.

With time, more and more related patterns are chunked and clusters of knowledge are stored in long-term memory. Then when a single detail of a complex situation appears, the experienced person can instantly recognise the larger design and predict outcomes that another must deduce with plodding sequential thought. Women, on average, excel at this form of thought. Also, related to web thinking is long-term planning – the ability to assess multiple, complex scenarios and plot a long-term course.

There is no evidence that anyone has studied gender differences in long-term planning. However, some business analysts believe that women are apt to think long-term more regularly, whereas men are more likely to focus on the here and now. Women definitely use long-term strategies more regularly in their financial affairs. In fact, in a study of six thousand investors, three-quarters of the women had no short-term investment goals; the trading records of thirty-five thousand clients of a large brokerage firm showed that men traded 45 percent more often than women.

There is, most likely, a biological component to women’s long-term approach. From studying patients with brain injuries, neuroscientists now know where in the brain long-term planning takes place. Women and men display some differences in the structure of these brain regions. So it is possible that women’s brain architecture contributes to their tendency to plan long term.

Women may have evolved the propensity to think long-term to plan for their children’s distant future.

Today, however, this faculty predisposes women to see business issues from a longer perspective – an essential element of leadership.

The significant problems we face today in the world cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.

Women bring a different way of thinking; a cooperative spirit; a gift for ‘reading’ people; patience; empathy; networking abilities; negotiating skills; a drive to nurture children, kin, business connections and the local and world community; an interest in ethnic diversity and education; a keen imagination; a win-win attitude; mental flexibility; an ability to embrace ambiguity; and the predisposition to examine complex social, environmental, and political issues with a broad, contextual, long-term view.

As the female mind becomes unleashed in our modern world, societies will benefit – even in lands where it is currently shackled.

Information source: The Centre for Applied Neuroscience

By Debbie Robinson

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