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Grey matters

September 18, 2013
By: 
Stephanie Harrington

Paul Mohapel

Being a good leader is a matter of science.

Former neuroscientist and Royal Roads associate faculty Paul Mohapel says understanding how the human brain works is the key to motivating people at work. And with a recent Gallop report showing only three in 10 workers are engaged in their job, Mohapel’s message is pertinent.

“How you engage with people has a profound impact on their brain. When we have a stress response it impairs our ability to think rationally, and our innovation and creativity goes down as well. After 30 days of constant stress, one could look at your brain and possibly see physical corrosion,” Mohapel says.

“We can damage people’s brain by how we treat them or help them by building new circuitry. There’s a perception this is something nice for employers to do, but it’s not nice, it’s crucial.”

Mohapel, now a leadership educator and consultant, will present a workshop on brain-based leadership at Leadership Conference 2013: Advancing Leadership Practice and Possibility, from Oct. 3 to 5, at Royal Roads. RRU alumni presenters Adrienne White and Kent Williams will also present neuroscience-themed workshops at the conference.

Organized by RRU’s School of Leadership Studies, the three-day conference will highlight new and emerging thinking in leadership. Keynote speakers include best-selling author Barry Posner whose book, The Leadership Challenge, co-authored with Jim Kouzes, has sold more than two million copies worldwide. RRU alumna Bonnie Blakley, Saskatoon Health Region’s vice president of people and partnerships, and Éliane Ubalijoro, professor at McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development, round out the list of keynotes.

Conference chair and RRU Associate Prof. Niels Agger-Gupta says the inaugural conference showcases scholars and practitioners, and gives alumni, who are organizational leaders and scholars in their own right, the chance to share their stories since graduating.

“This conference will create a venue to bring alumni and others interested in leadership together to talk about leadership innovation. We are excited Barry Posner is coming. He will be a fantastic keynote and a name most alumni and people in the leadership field will recognise,” Agger-Gupta says.

Mohapel says good leaders use more of their prefrontal cortex, part of the brain responsible for reflective thought and other human attributes such as the ability to visualize and project ourselves into the future; discipline to delay immediate gratification for a greater reward; ethical decision-making; and the ability to make social connections.

“A successful leader understands these principles. Anytime we see a breakdown in leadership we see a breakdown in these elements. If a leader is impulsive, they have poor discipline. If they can’t connect with employees or are emotionally distracted, they lack the fifth ability,” he says.

It was reflection that made Mohapel, at the time a post-doctoral stem cell researcher in Sweden, realize that neuroscience was the wrong profession for him. He enrolled in a Master of Arts in Leadership at Royal Roads, and, after completing a month-long residency at RRU, handed in his resignation and returned to Victoria to work towards his new career.

“I knew after those four weeks this is exactly what I wanted to do,” he said.

Mohapel gravitated towards the emerging field of emotional intelligence, often referred to as positive psychology or the science of happiness, and began integrating neuroscience into his leadership work.

“A lot of work in leadership is around strength-based approaches. We’re victims to the idea that other people tell you what you’re good at and you do it. I was good at science but it didn’t energize me. People who are outstanding in their profession do one or two things really well. It gives them energy so when they hit setbacks, they tend to work harder,” Mohapel says.

“All of us could gravitate towards this if we had the courage or awareness to do that. A lot of my work is around that and I’m living proof of that concept.”

Demonstrating good leadership extends beyond the workplace, Mohapel says. Enabling people to fulfill their potential through qualities such as reflection and discipline, he says, will benefit humankind.

“Biological evolution stopped with humans; the next stage is social evolution. If we continuously develop those five elements we’re going to evolve as a species. I believe leadership is the conduit by which this can occur.”