Following the extraordinary buzz surrounding HRIZON 2012, I travelled to the Top End to be a keynote speaker for the Northern Territory’s October Business Month (OBM) and then flew to New York to participate in the Global NeuroLeadership Summit. It’s hard to imagine a more striking urban contrast than between Alice Springs and Manhattan.
In the Alice, there was an enormous thirst for new HR knowledge, and the OBM delegates seemed to gain some level of comfort that they shared similar workplace challenges to the rest of Australia, even if the degree and intensity of those experiences varied significantly. For example, some Northern Territory organisations encounter staff turnover rates of between 40 and 100 per cent annually – so strategies for talent attraction and retention elicited more than the usual amount of interest.
Meanwhile the frenetic bustling metropolis New York City seemed an ideal place to consider the latest research on how the workings of the brain relates to new thinking about leadership in the workplace. Australian expatriate David Rock, who founded the Neuro Leadership Institute (NLI) a decade ago, led the summit.
He has worked very hard to establish a constellation of partnerships with leading neuro and social researchers in universities around the globe; he has also connected with leading public and private organisations that see the potential of neuro-leadership. There is a lot more data available now on how positive and negative signals from others are handled by the brain, and also the pathways and preferences in our thinking.
This data supports the fundamentals from Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence and more recent contributions on ethical and servant leadership. The extra advantage is that it’s all based on hard scientific data about how the brain works, and the signals that turn people on and off about their work. This has great appeal to CEOs – especially those who see leadership as being all about getting others to do what the boss wants.
But the CEO class didn’t get off scot free at this brain-research jamboree. One of the most interesting sessions involved some survey results on the CEO mindset. Some of the key findings from this session included the strong parallels between being a great CEO, madness and narcissism. A great CEO can see what others can’t, and the business potential from that. But a person who is mad also sees things that others don’t; and a narcissist doesn’t see much more than the greatness in their own ability and potential, which unfortunately no one else can see.
Narcissists often become CEOs
Narcissists often become CEOs because they are very persuasive at projecting positive pictures of themselves. The data showed that narcissistic CEOs didn’t outperform other CEOs – but they were a lot better at persuading others that in fact they did. One of the panelists on this session was Absolutely Fabulous scriptwriter and comedienne Ruby Wax, who is pursuing postgraduate neuro-leadership studies at Oxford University. She observed, “It’s not that CEOs are high performers, many of them are just high – most of the time.”
I have often been asked what’s the most important single external success factor in being an effective HR leader. My answer has always been that it’s the quality of your boss. You can do a lot to develop a positive and people-friendly workplace culture with a good boss, and not very much at all when you report to a micro-managing control freak. Nevertheless there is no such thing as a flawless CEO, as there is a 30 per cent chance they will display narcissistic tendencies.
I hope 2013 is off to a great start. Perhaps the beginning of the year is a good time to reflect on whether you have the right boss for the job you are trying to do, or whether it’s simpler to stick with the insane devil you know.