Another concept that has been raised in recent thinking around neuroscience and emotions is that of mirror neurons, explained in the Goleman & Boyatzis’ Harvard Business Review article, “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership”. This article explains that Italian scientists found mirror neurons in the brain accidentally when studying a particular cell in a monkey’s brain that fired only when it raised its arm.
This concept is summed up in the quote from the article: “One day a lab assistant lifted an ice cream cone to his mouth and triggered a reaction in the monkey’s cell. It was the first evidence that the brain is peppered with neurons that mimic, or mirror, what another being does. This previously unknown class of brain cells operates as neural Wi-Fi, allowing us to navigate our social world. When we consciously or unconsciously detect someone else’s emotions through their actions, our mirror neurons reproduce those emotions. Collectively, these neurons create an instant sense of shared experience.”
This is an exciting discovery that explains some of the inspiration that develops in Elite Teams. Geoffrey Webb, a former US attack helicopter pilot, provides some insight into the characteristics of elite teams in his blog – The Five Qualities of Elite Teams. He identifies that these teams form deep bonds and that members inspire each other into action. From his military experience, he believes the five qualities of an Elite Team are:
1. Deep trust
2. High standards
3. Strong commitment
4. Worthwhile purpose
5. Shared suffering
Number five – shared suffering – is routed in shared experience in challenging scenarios. Linking this to Goleman & Boyatzis’ article, we believe mirror neurons could reproduce the emotions that create deep bonds in such teams.
Goleman and Boyatzi go on to explain: “Mirror neurons have particular importance in organisations because leaders’ emotions and actions prompt followers to mirror those feelings and deeds. Activating neural circuitry in followers’ brains can be very powerful… It turns out that there’s a subset of mirror neurons whose only job is to detect other people’s smiles and laughter, prompting smiles and laughter in return.
“A boss who is self-controlled and humourless will rarely engage those neurons in his team members. Still, a boss who laughs and sets an easy-going tone puts those neurons to work, triggering spontaneous laughter and knitting his team together in the process. A bonded group performs well….
“Fabio Sala has shown in his research… that top-performing leaders elicited laughter from their subordinates three times as often, on average, as did mid performing leaders. Other research finds that being in a good mood helps people take in information effectively and respond nimbly and creatively. In other words, laughter is serious business.”
Neuroscience has also helped us understand more about our environment’s influence, the positive rewards of attachment emotions when we feel we belong, and the adverse effects of fear, disgust and shame when we are rejected or fear rejection. Amy Edmondson (Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management – Harvard Business School) reinforces this thinking in her concept of “psychological safety” and explains why this is critical to “teaming”.
Psychological safety describes a climate where people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings. This is critical to allow people to be authentic, reveal vulnerabilities and gain trust to create inspirational climates that will enable teams to flourish.
Amy explains: “Teaming, coined deliberately to capture the activity of working together, presents a new, more flexible way for organisations to carry out interdependent tasks. Unlike the traditional concept of a team, teaming is an active process, not a static identity. Imagine a fluid network of interconnected individuals working in temporary teams (in a psychologically safe environment) on improvement, problem-solving and innovation and teaming blends relating to people, listening to other points of view, coordinating action and making shared decisions and teaming calls for developing affective (feeling) and cognitive (thinking) skills.”
Inspirational leaders create learning organisations, enable teaming and develop psychologically safe environments which foster innovation. Businesses today need to innovate if they are to evolve and survive in the competitive world. Inspirational leaders are the catalysts at the heart of this evolution.
Inspiration – be different and be bold
In many famous speeches that changed the world, inspirational leadership can be seen in action throughout history. Lessons which included engaging and unforgettable phrases which stick in our memory and are easily recalled. For example:
• Abraham Lincoln: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation…” (The Gettysburg Address, 9 November 1863).
• Malcolm X: “You can’t hate the roots of a tree, and not hate the tree” (14 February 1965).
• Jawaharlal Nehru: “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom” (Tryst with Destiny Speech, 4 August 1947).
• Marie Curie: “The scientific history of radium is beautiful” (On the discovery of radium, 14 May 1921).
• Obafemi Awolowo: “The children of the poor you failed to train will never let your children have peace.”
Winston Churchill: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” (House of Commons Speech, 13th May 1940).
• Nelson Mandela: “I am the first accused” (20th April 1964); and “Free at last” (2 May 1994).
The essence of inspiration can be seen in these leaders’ emotional connections in their speeches. Carefully prepared words, delivered with humility, confidence, boldness and faith in the cause the leader was defending, stirred the hearts and minds of millions of people.
These speeches are easy to find, and they still have resonance today. The leaders spoke of principles such as equality, hope, dreams, freedom and pride. The underlying message from these leaders is that you need to suspend your ego and agenda and work for the greater good; only by doing this will you achieve your actual goal and the collective dream.
Martin Luther King (Jnr)’s speech, “I have a dream” at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, on 28 August 1963, was one of the most memorable speeches. He delivered his speech with passion, power, boldness and a firm commitment to the cause of freedom and human rights. He truly believed that diversity is valuable and differences should be appreciated, and despite threats to his life, he dared to speak up. He openly lived his values, walked the talk and engaged the hearts of millions. Elements of his inspiring speech are below:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of hope to millions of enslaved Negroes, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
Nevertheless, one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. Thus, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.
I dream that this nation will rise and live out the true meaning of its creed one day: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.
I dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of formerly enslaved people and the sons of former enslavers will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I dream that even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew a stone of hope out of the mountain of despair. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, pray, struggle, go to jail, and stand up for freedom, knowing that we will be free one day. Moreover, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. The land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring?…
Moreover, when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring in every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last.’’
I encourage you, the reader, to reflect on his words.
• How did Martin Luther King Jnr create such powerful sentences?
• How did he appeal to people’s hearts?
• How did he mobilise people to action?
• What can you learn from reflection on poetry and speeches such as this famous oration?
Martin Luther King Jnr displayed courage and boldly spoke out about freedom. He appealed to the human heart and managed his fears for his life. He suspended his ego and pushed on to make things happen. He did lose his life in the end in dramatic circumstances. For anyone who wishes to understand this inspirational man more, we recommend a trip to Memphis, USA’s National Civil Rights Museum. Stand in the very room he spent his last moments, and you will understand how courageous he was to step out on the balcony where he was assassinated on that fatal night in 1968.
• So, what can we learn from history?
• What can we emulate, and how can we inspire our followers emotionally to act towards a common cause?
• Think about the people around you; whom do you want to inspire today?
• How are you going to achieve this?