The physiology of leadership

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  • Studies in leadership: Simon Sinek drew parallels with body chemistry and the workplace to illustrate elements of effective leadership

    Studies in leadership: Simon Sinek drew parallels with body chemistry and the workplace to illustrate elements of effective leadership


Employees need to feel safe at work in a world that “is still filled with danger”.

That is the view of Simon Sinek, management guru and bestselling author, who drew parallels between body chemistry and the workplace environment in an engaging opening address at the Association for Talent Development conference in Denver.

Mr Sinek, the author of the global best-seller Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action and Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, shared insights from his books in his keynote address.

Mr Sinek started by saying “We don’t have a good standardised definition of what a leader is” and continued with “we always respond to the environment we’re in”. Therefore, it’s important for leaders to set conditions for trust and co-operation. This involves setting up what he referred to as “a circle of safety.”

Leaders can achieve the “circle of safety” at work by focusing on the physiology of leadership. This physiology comprises endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, he suggested.

Endorphins mask physical pain. We continue to do something, such as strenuous exercise, when it feels good. Sinek said that this also applies to activities in an organisation. Like many activities that bring happiness they can be short lived and that’s the problem.

Dopamine helps the good feeling you have with achieving a task. Because of this feel good, dopamine enables us to concentrate on the task at hand. Therefore, Mr Sinek says, leaders should have goals for their employees. Many of us will remember that these goals need to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented and time-limited).

An excellent example of dopamine at work is crossing off an item from your “to-do list”. It’s a nice feeling of achievement. However, if dopamine is left unbalanced it can be dangerous, according to Mr Sinek, and could lead to such addictions as alcohol, drugs and gambling.

At work it could lead to behaviour that encourages goal achievement at any cost. This could also lead to unhealthy competitiveness. One organisation I know of suspended a sales competition when it learnt that the competition led to dysfunctional behaviour among its sales force. That behaviour has a negative impact on trust and co-operation, which are so necessary for an organisation to be successful.

The next physiological chemical that Sinek discussed was serotonin. This gives people a sense of pride and status. One way to do this is through public recognition. This ties in with the basic management principle of praise in public and criticism in private.

Oxytocin, which is the final physiological chemical Mr Sinek discussed, brings feelings of love and friendship. These are produced by kindness and generosity in the workplace. Good leaders know that these are important and provide them.

The following are a number of quotes I will remember from Mr Sinek’s presentation:

• “Leaders set the conditions.”

• “The harder managers ride their people the worse they perform.”

• “A vision statement means you have to be able to see it — a future that does not exist yet”.

• “To use human beings to balance numbers is madness.”

I found Mr Sinek an excellent speaker who’s very passionate about his topic.

The other keynote speakers at the event were Brene Brown and Jeremy Gutsche.

Among the 10,200 attendees were 1,800 people from outside the US. There were 400 exhibitors spread over 17 aisles in the huge exhibition hall.

ATD was founded in 1943 as the American Society of Training Directors. Its name was subsequently changed to the American Society for Training and Development and in 2014 was changed again to ATD.

Paul Loftus is a Montreal-based industrial/organisational psychologist, an intercultural consultant and a freelance journalist. He has been conducting both public and in-company management development and intercultural seminars in Bermuda for over 20 years. He can be reached at 1-514-282-9111; ploftus@colba.net;www.paulloftus.ca"> www.paulloftus.ca

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Published Jun 7, 2016 at 8:00 am (Updated Jun 6, 2016 at 8:43 pm)

The physiology of leadership

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