by Julian Azzopardi – Up Your Level CEO

Mother Brain, Paternal Brain, and the development of The Leader Brain

Fathers are made, not born.

And I am going to become a father.

So recent research on the development of a paternal brain in new fathers caught my attention in more ways than one. 

‘Father brain’ and learning to parent

The belief that parenting skills are primarily instinctual is being challenged through research that suggests it is the result of significant neurological adaptations in the brain during extended child caring moments. 

With specific reference to a study on new fathers, the research noted structural changes in the brains of the participants after their child was born. These changes were noted in areas of the brain that are associated with motivation, decision-making, and emotive regulation. These changes also influenced the fathers’ depressive symptoms and parenting behaviours.

The researchers reflect that the change in role to fatherhood stimulates the adaptive process of the male brain due to its ability to re-shape itself. This is referred to as neuroplasticity. As it learns, the brain adopts new predispositions to address complex situations and maintain higher levels of self-control during intense moments. To do this, it requires constant training and the willingness to undergo periods of growth inducing stress.

In the book Mother Brain (2022), the author Chelsea Conaboy explores these same permutations as she recounts her own story of transformation through parenthood. The development of new caregiving circuitry had immense influences on herself, but also sheds light on the relevance of caregiving to a much wider context, that of shaping human nature.

What can parenting teach us about leadership?

Parenting provides for extended periods of engaged experiences; periods of repeated effort and focus that allow the brain to learn through immediate feedback. It also develops deeper rooted neural pathways informing parents on how to behave in similar future situations. This process of neurogenesis – creating of new neurons as a result of new information and ways of doing things, promotes cognitive flexibility and a willingness to embrace new perspectives.

As my forthcoming paternal role starts to sink in, it also got me thinking whether the same can be said for the development of the leader brain, and whether we can adopt the science of parenting, to the cognition of a leader brain following extended experiences in leading/coaching people.

Can anyone develop ‘leadership brain’?

If fathers develop a paternal brain while taking care of children, is it reasonable to assume a manager, team leader, or business owner can develop a leader brain by putting intentional, extended effort into leading, nurturing, and coaching their people?

Of course, I would say yes! 

While elements of leadership (like parenting) are many, I will focus on the concept of the engaged experiences as determinants for developing the leader brain.

An engaged experience is meaningful, motivating, memorable, positive and impactful. I outline five key elements to the making of an engaged experience and their connection with our neurological responses:

  1. Meaningful: The experience is relevant to the employee’s needs and the leaders’ interests. Relevance provides status and a feeling of presence, meaning and self-worth. As a result, we feel happy with ourselves, and we produce the chemical serotonin leading to a sense of happiness and the propensity to motivate ourselves to do more of the same experience that made us feel that way.

  2. Motivating: The experience is individualised, intentional and fully committed to the needs of the situation. Each individual is different and engaged experiences in leadership need to be intentionally individualised according to the context, person and desired outcomes. From a leadership perspective, the individualised approach leads to much more relevance in the outcome and therefore the release of Dopamine in our system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that propels us to achieve results that have strong meaning to us.

  3. Memorable: The experience evokes positive emotions. Too often is leadership associated with negative emotions, since it tends to be interpreted as punitive. The development of a leader brain needs to do the inverse, and intentionally design experiences that are emotionally stimulating in a positive manner as it builds a strong connection with our long-term memory to be used by our brain in times of doubt or stress. Endorphins are what our hypothalamus uses to connect the emotion with a feeling of well-being, trust and self-control.

  4. Positive: The experience provides opportunities for the user to learn and grow. A critical component in leadership is the continuous exploration of ways to improve their impact on others. While stressful, it is through extending the boundaries of our challenge/skills ratio that allows leaders and their employees to develop. When stressed Cortisol is released activating our internal alarm system on the potential of threat or challenge. In small doses, Cortisol is necessary to understand the consequence of our actions, and therefore important for us to overcome the challenge and turn it into a growth opportunity.

  5. Impactful: The experience fosters a sense of community and belonging. Humans are social animals and social connection is imperative for leaders and fostering a leader brain. This can be done through mentoring, coaching, teaching and many other ways that imparts knowledge, builds trust and also allows for psychological safety in the relationship developed. As a result, Oxytocin is released and we get that warm feeling we get when we are hugged (assuming one likes being hugged). Oxytocin, or the love bug as it is popularly known as, is essential for the development of empathy, trust, confidence, and collaboration.

What are the benefits of a leader brain?

When I look at the (future) benefits of the development of my own paternal brain on how to regulate emotions and react to intense situations, I can also see similar benefits of a leader brain. These can be:

  • An increased connection in and out of work with colleagues through a value-driven perspective which is less selfish and egocentric.
  • Improved mastery of roles and responsibilities that builds capacity to deal with complicated problem solving with innovation and creativity.
  • Enhanced emotional intelligence and the ability to self-regulate when dealing with complex, uncomfortable situations or experiences.
  • A deeper sense of meaning and purpose that drives more intrinsic motivation.
  • A heightened level of relevance that increases self-worth and confidence when engaged in various activities or situations.

How does one foster a leader brain?

There are various routes to carving out and creating engaged experiences. 

Step one, define your leadership purpose. A clearly defined purpose (an intended outcome) for your leadership is a good start to work towards developing that leader brain. It becomes your north star and GPS when you go astray.

Secondly, every engaged experience needs to be intentional. There is no room for distraction in leadership, even less in an engaged experience. Think of holding a newborn baby and you will understand the level of intentionality, commitment and unreserved dedication one needs to have impactful engaged experiences. Know what you are going to do during that engaged experience. Have a clear agenda, determine outputs, resources required, etc. make it the most important of engagements if you want results.

Lastly, design the experience around the purpose and the intent. No engaged experience is one that ‘just happens’. Or at least none that have lasting impact. Ensure you choose the right place, time of day and environment. A rich environment is essential for an engaged experience. Choose your words, understand whether your mood, clothing, mental space are ready for the creation of and engagement in the experience. This is also where organisations can design roles around their purpose and intent, by allocating specific time and spaces for mentoring within the organisation and within the definition of roles.

As I embrace my new paternal journey, I am already seeing some of the benefits of engaged experiences with early parenthood; putting effort into the design and set-up of the nursery, attending doctor appointments, parentcraft sessions, and having intentional conversations with my better half on all things baby. 

If I can develop a paternal brain, you can develop a leader brain. Want to know how you can develop your own leader brain? Get in touch with me on [email protected], or book a chat with me directly here.

I would love to hear from you!