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Faculty Insights

Understanding the Chemicals of Leadership and the Impact They Can Have

By Barry Roberts

June 15, 2016

I discovered a new way of looking at the impact of leaders and leadership styles from best-selling author and celebrated TED Talk speaker Simon Sinek at the recent Association of Talent Development (ATD) International Conference & Exposition in Denver. He unveiled a new approach to leadership that builds on neuroscience and the biological chemicals that all humans generate.

Barry Roberts
Barry Roberts is custom program manager for the Center for Professional and Executive Development at the Wisconsin School of Business.

Sinek’s new book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, was the basis for his riveting conference keynote speech in which he illustrated the physiology of leadership, or how a leader’s behaviors stimulate different biologic responses that can be helpful or hurtful.
Organizational culture and employee engagement are the primary responsibility of leadership at all levels. Sinek says, “Leaders set the conditions for trust and cooperation. If they don’t, or if they get it wrong, then you get the opposite: cynicism, paranoia, mistrust, and self-interest.”
To help us understand how the conditions set by leaders impact individuals, team, and organizations, Sinek focuses on four key chemicals: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. These chemicals are for the most part desirable and constructive when stimulated.
The chemicals in your brain that influence leadership outcomes:

  1. Endorphins: Mask physical pain and promote feelings of happiness.  Physical exercise is a good endorphin-producing activity, but the positive feelings are very short-lived.  A company party, picnic, or other celebration helps raise morale but only temporarily.
  2. Dopamine: Contributes to the feeling of accomplishment and elation from completing a task, achieving a goal, or winning in a game. This is why checking a completed task off a list feels good. Because we seek the positive feelings of dopamine, it can enable us to stay focused, but if left unbalanced, it can be dangerous and lead to addictive behaviors such as gambling or excessive video gaming. Having clear goals for employees and progress or achievement scorecards helps a leader stimulate dopamine in a constructive way.
  3. Oxytocin: Invokes feelings of love and loyalty. This chemical drives us to be around people we like and trust.  Oxytocin is produced through human touch and acts of kindness or generosity. For leaders, being authentic and transparent are trustworthy behaviors that can also produce oxytocin and promote admiration and loyalty.
  4. Serotonin: Supports a sense of pride, status, and gratitude. From a leadership lens, this means that when employees feel their leader has their back, in turn, they will take care of the leader, the company, and each other.

Another key chemical I would add to the leadership mix is cortisol, which is directly tied to the level of stress we are experiencing.
Cortisol is helpful to a degree. We need enough stress and cortisol to get us up in the morning and on to a productive day, but excessive and continuous periods of high stress produce too much cortisol, which has damaging effects on our bodies and brains. In the mindfulness and neuroscience arenas, cortisol levels have been studied in some business settings. Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini said about the study, “We saw dramatic drops—50 percent drops—in cortisol levels … we saw a $3,000 reduction in (employee) healthcare costs for the next year.”
Individuals choose different strategies to manage stress, from destructive behaviors such as smoking and drinking alcohol to constructive strategies such as mindfulness meditation and physical exercise.  Leaders need to recognize how their behaviors, expectations, and decisions can increase stress to unhealthy levels for others, and then make changes to foster a truly healthy environment and culture.  We can also teach the skills needed for individuals to reduce stress and cortisol constructively regardless of their role in the organization.
Through this approach of looking at not just behavioral responses but the physiological as well, leaders can understand the four chemicals to stimulate in others and the one to reduce if they want improved employee wellness, engagement, and productivity.
There is significant research on the different chemicals in the neuroscience arena to understand the basic biological mechanisms, but research to link them to work life, leadership, business results, and organizational culture is needed. As research develops, we will continue to build on the work of people like Simon Sinek, Dr. Richard Davidson, Dan Goleman and others to link science and leadership to achieving better business results and healthier organizations.
Learn more about leadership, well-being in the workplace, and custom programs to help businesses achieve both.