What's right (and wrong) with Obama's brain
I study leadership through the lens of how the human brain functions.While I haven't studied Obama's brain directly, from watching his mannerisms I have a hunch that Obama's brain is different to that of our earlier commanders-in-chief. These differences may have both an upside and a downside to Obama's ability to lead. I also sense that the American people may not have much experience (at least recently) in dealing with a leader with Obama's type of brain, which may be the source of some uncertainty and fear Here's my take on two of his possible neural peculiarities.
The upside and downside to strong social circuits
In his role as community advocate, an unusual pathway to a presidency, Obama had years of practice holding multiple points of view in mind, especially involving lots of other people's goals. As a result, I would guess that Obama has a well-developed medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). The mPFC is central to the 'self and social circuitry'. This region is involved in accurately knowing oneself and others, and becomes active when we hold a representation of other people's minds in our own mind.A well-developed mPFC may explain why Obama is more of an alliance-builder and mediator than some previous US leaders. (It perhaps explains why he's a good poker player too: good poker players read their opponents, not just play the cards).
Here's where it gets interesting. The circuits involved in thinking conceptually, like doing math or planning a campaign, reside in a different region of the brain, the outer or more 'lateral' part of the prefrontal cortex. When this region becomes active, we tend to switch off the mPFC circuitry.
Many leaders, both political and business, have not had cause to think deeply about their own and other people's goals and instead have spent years planning and strategizing, in business or in law. If we have spent our lives as lawyer, and never thought hard about human experience, we may have great circuitry in one region of the PFC but our mPFC could be lacking. Obama on the other hand appears to have good circuitry in both. This is unusual in a leader, and his resulting style could easily make people used to another style nervous. Small changes, even tiny uncertainties, can create a strong threat response, whereas the brain is attracted to certainty.
Which style is best in a leader today? We now live in a multi-polar world. The use of force is less realistic as a diplomatic option, and we need global collaboration to solve global problems like energy and climate change. In this environment, it's hard to argue that the world would be a better place if more world leaders had circuitry that enabled better collaboration.
Now, here's the bad news. Having strong self and social circuitry may make it harder to be single-minded. When you can see so many perspectives, it's harder to stay blindly obsessed by one idea. Experiencing too much empathy could make it hard to make tough decisions. When determination is needed, a less socially intelligent but more stubborn leader sometimes may achieve more. Then again, history has shown us the dangers of having a leader being doggedly attached to the wrong strategy too.
The uses and perils of good self-regulation circuitry
The town hall meetings during the recent election were the one time you could see how McCain and Obama really functioned. Only so much of this could be scripted. I noticed that in the heat of the moment McCain would often lose his temper. The camera would then pan to Obama, who would be quietly chuckling to himself. This chuckling is a sign of someone taking a moment to self-regulate, to buy time to reflect instead of react.
This technique is called 'reappraisal'. Reappraisal is a critical tool for reducing the impact of otherwise emotional experiences. Allowing strong negative emotions to be experienced makes us less able to process complex ideas, and reduces the number of options we can perceive. (Letting out anger also generally makes us more angry overall, not less angry.)
Leaders experience 'power stress' , or stress from three functions that could each overwhelm an average brain: having too much to do, dealing with uncertainty, and being seen by others. High stress reduces the capacity to think clearly, and reduces people's ability to come up with creative solutions to complex problems.
World leaders have to make difficult and vastly complex decisions that impact millions of people. We need more leaders who have a strong capacity to regulate their emotions, rather than those who easily fly off the handle. Obama appears to have better self-regulation capacity than any political leader I have observed. It would be interesting to find out how and where he developed this capacity. I expect part of it is his spiritual tradition and partly it comes from the challenges he has faced. The phrase 'Whatever doesn't kills us does make us stronger' does have some truth when it comes to regulating emotions.
If I had a brain-assessment to 'test the mettle' of future political leaders, one of the first things I would look out for is their ability to regulate emotions. (Hey, I say pilots and doctors are tested for competence, why not leaders too?) We want leaders with the mental toughness to land a plane on the Hudson, not those who are likely to take increasing vacations when the going gets tough.
Unfortunately there is a dark side to people who regulate their emotions a lot. At times when a bit of emotion might help, perhaps when showing sorrow or anger, a well-regulated leader can become a little out of practice at allowing feelings to surface. I think that's what we saw recently, with people wanting Obama to 'get angry' at BP. We're used to leaders who showed their anger, who let their feelings surface, and it may be easy to misread Obama's strategy here. Perhaps Obama could be adaptive, and allow himself to experience stronger emotions. I expect he fears unsettling the delicate balancing act that allows him to stay cool under pressure every day.
Obama's job isn't easy at the best of times. These are the worst of times. For the US and the global community to succeed, I believe we need more leaders who are good at collaboration and who can stay truly cool under pressure. Leaders like this seem to be rare: let's not trash this one just because we are out of practice at reading his mind.
August 16, 2010; 11:26 AM ET |
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