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Autumn 2015 Issue
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Wired for wonder: grow your own brains

Brain network

“You can build brand new brain into old age.” - Dr Fiona Kerr
After decades of helping organisations grow and change, Dr Fiona Kerr is working on ways we can improve the most complex information management and ideation system imaginable, the human brain.

Talking with Dr Kerr, the Systems and Neural Complexity Specialist at the University of Adelaide’s Entrepreneurship, Commercialisation and innovation Centre, is uplifting and optimistic, which rather makes her point. With energy and enthusiasm for new ideas, deep self-awareness and respect for others, mature leaders can “grow their own brains” – and give others the means to do the same.

Leaders can actually “hot wire” whole organisations, she says.

The idea of neuroplasticity, that our brains change and adapt, is well understood but what fascinates Dr Kerr is neurogenesis, the way brains can grow new neural cells according to the amount of stimulation they receive. “We now know that you can build brand new brain right through life, even into old age, under the right conditions,” she says.

It is an extraordinary idea. An improbable one for people who were taught that we start life with the most brain cells we will ever have, then it is all downhill from there and the only way to cope is to stick with what we know.

But Dr Kerr says leaders with skills developed over time can use them to change organisations, and lives. “We are getting closer to identifying the complex chunks of key neurobiological processes that make people wise.”

Dr Kerr started studying how leaders can ensure organisations flourish or fail in the late 1980s with General Motors in South Australia.

Over many years of observation, and more recently PhD research, she came to understand that our brain chemistry is a critical factor in the way we learn, and how we learn from, and respond to others. “Some people make better leaders than others, not just because of the way their brains are wired but also because they are capable of building on what they have to begin with. We are wired for wonder and we can feel like this all of our lives,” she says.

But this is not enough, according to Dr Kerr; leaders who can grow their own brains with increased meta-cognitive capacity and complex schemata, and in turn can encourage this process in others, take decades of self-awareness to build on these meta-cognitive skills.

“Some work points to the possibility that people adopt the ideas, vision and terminology of strong, charismatic leaders through a neurogenetic process – when there is trust and a high level of connectivity between them, they lay down new neural nets which are almost identical when working together on new ideas and concepts. This can also happen in a close-knit team.

“So what seems like a shared idea or method can almost be seen as shared brain – indeed they are called ‘shared neural nets’. Further, neurons have been isolated in the brain which orchestrate or mirror physical behaviour, and influence trust, empathy, humour and intuition through fast intuitive assessment of complex social situations,” she argues.

Leaders have three core attributes – what Dr Kerr calls “emergent logic” – they are complex thinkers with sufficient experience to have a high level of ‘chunked’ knowledge, leaving them cognitively free to find patterns and see the big picture of what their organisation needs to do. Leaders are inquisitive and curious, they want to learn and they learn by doing. They are emotionally self-aware and empathic to the wants and needs, hopes and fears of others. They are also aware that organisations are “chaordic” (a combination of chaos and order), which is what they must work with. “It does not matter how people try to control and run things, this is what organisations are and you cannot stop people creating and changing,” Dr Kerr says. “The only choice is whether it will be positive or negative”.

Leaders with these high-level characteristics can build organisations that work in the same way as their brains – as complex adaptive systems. “Highly adaptive organisations have two critical requirements, which encourage creativity and innovation. The chief executive must be passionate about their organisation and able to communicate what it exists to do. They need to be clear on the values people must have to do their jobs. This gives people a roadmap of where they are going and how to act on the journey, leaving them room to plot a creative path. They need to know how to deal with task-based process while understanding and managing the emotional system of their organisation,” she adds.

In essence, they must inspire trust and keep inspiring – “They are pragmatic optimists”.

“While trust can create new brain, people are really good at picking falsehood and when they do, their brains release chemicals to stop new brain building. This is why scared people do dumb things; they cannot access existing knowledge, let alone build new brain,” she says.

And it is why managers who are linear thinkers and rely on hierarchies to understand organisations fail both as trusted leaders and creative managers. They find ambiguity difficult to deal with, are nervous with new ideas and they communicate their discomfort. Which means they shape their team in their own image – and as Dr Kerr points out, brains do not always grow, they can stagnate and even shrink.

“So it is critical for people to not only feel supported when they are nudged into new spaces, but for the leader and culture to welcome and openly engage with disconfirming information,” she says.

“Natural leaders can make themselves more so, and they can nurture and enrich others who can in turn develop their own abilities to discover, learn and lead.”

It is an immensely optimistic vision but one based in an understanding that a great deal of what was once called “character” is in fact “chemistry”.

“You can learn operational skills but great leaders exist because they are wired that way. The brain of a transformational leader lights up differently during various activities – the fascinating work ahead is looking at what that means for choosing and training leaders,” she says.

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