Becoming an Influential Leader - Understanding The Brain and the Chemical Soup?

Read time: 5mins — Performance Psychology

If you want to become an influential Leader, it’s important to get to know how human beings are both rewarded and intimidated. The key then lies in your ability to do more of one and much less of the other. Our thoughts and actions are being triggered and influenced by what are known as ‘neurotransmitters’ or hormones, which we’re going to describe here as brain chemicals. We must make an effort to understand these chemicals and their impact on people’s behaviour.

There are 4 main brain chemicals you need to become familiar with, as they have a huge impact on human behaviour.

1. Dopamine

Dopamine is linked with reward and self-fulfilment and is released when we have desire, drive and motivation. If you enjoy dancing, sport or watching films for example, these activities are likely to release dopamine and you experience a sense of joy, contentment and fulfilment. Your brain will be getting a hit of dopamine when you carry out the activity and it increases your motivation to do it again. Sex releases dopamine, achieving your sales targets, and (for some), completing a marathon releases dopamine. For many, it’s their job that gives them fulfilment and so they release dopamine when achieving at work. It makes us want to repeat our actions time and time again. As a leader, you carry the greatest interpersonal influence on your people. You have the ability to release dopamine in their minds by ensuring they’re rewarded and recognised appropriately for their efforts. Ask yourself the question: do you praise your teams members regularly? Do you understand what’s driving them in the first place? Do you know what reward is for them? If you’re unsure of the answers to these kind of questions, you need to bring this into your conscious because that’s what influential leaders do.

2. Oxytocin

Oxytocin has many different roles, but we’re going to focus on its use in creating rapport, trust and a bond with another human being. The first major release of oxytocin in our lives comes the moment we’re born, as both mother and baby receive a big hit to promote and create an instant loving bond. Your baby is the most gorgeous child on Earth bar none. Now, that may be true, it may not, but whatever the charms of junior, that’s the oxytocin talking.

Oxytocin is also released during sex to bond two people together, and it’s highly influential in any trust-based relationships.

Think about your closest circle of friends. You release oxytocin in their presence more than you do in anybody else’s; you have something between you, an unconscious agreement that says: “We bond, you’re in my circle, I trust you, I want to protect you at all costs and I know you’re there for me.” This is why we often jump quickly to the defence of those people. For example, if a family member is notoriously stubborn, it’s fine for you to comment, but it’s not fine for someone not in your inner circle to speak about them unkindly or make fun of them. Oxytocin flows when we build trust or integrity with each other. I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine.

What we observe about socially excellent people and great leaders in businesses, high performers in sports teams and the best coaches and leaders, is that they have an uncanny knack of influencing those around them to release oxytocin. These people have a way of gaining trust, establishing rapport, credibility and respect. They get in people’s close circles very quickly and it’s amazing to watch. The seemingly standoffish amongst us who tend to distance ourselves initially and radiate the message “I’ve got my circle... I’m not letting anybody else in”, tend not to do as well socially as those who have a bigger circle or many circles. As leaders, you should not keep your employees at arms length or on a strictly professional relationship basis! It’s your job to get close to them, understand them and gain the trust and rapport required to drive the transparency and commitment needed to perform as a team.

3. Serotonin

Primarily, serotonin is linked to our sleep patterns and to digestion, our intestines and digestive system, but from a social aspect, serotonin is released when we feel significant, powerful and influential within a group. It helps to maintain our confidence. Research also shows, and it’s interesting to note, that low levels of serotonin in the brain are linked to depression and feelings of insignificance, worthlessness, inferiority and a lack of confidence. What we observe in some business leaders and people in positions of power or significance, is that it’s all about them releasing serotonin in their own minds; it’s about them feeling powerful, which is why they hit with the big stick, they micromanage, they vilify, belittle, rant and reprimand people in public.

Great leaders, however, release serotonin in the minds of others. They empower others, they elevate others; they speak to them on a peer level; they ask them for help and advice. One of the greatest ways to create trust, a bond and influence others as an individual, or as a leader, is to say, “I need your help.” It could be described as humility but it’s one of the greatest things you can do to empower other people and make them feel significant and valued. If you think about all the closest people to you outside your direct family, we would be willing to bet that those people make you feel significant and valued. They show an appreciation for your great qualities. You feel great around these people because, yes, you’ve got oxytocin that’s released so you trust them, but their response to you will also release serotonin in your brain and give you an emotional ‘boost’.

4. Cortisol

Say “Hello” to our greatest friend and our worst enemy! Again, cortisol has many effects on the body but, fundamentally, for our social brain, cortisol is linked to survival. When the chemical is released into our brains it’s an instant response to stress, causing anxiety and fear. Our limbic systems are shouting at us “Wake up, switch on, something’s wrong!” and alerting us to a potential threat. It’s our fight or flight response linked to our innate need to survive.

Fast-forward to today. How many life-or-death situations have you been in? We’d be willing to guess not many, if any at all. Very, very few times in modern life are we exposed to an immediate life-or-death situation, so cortisol can now play an entirely different and not altogether welcome role.

Cortisol is released when we feel anxious. For example, when we read a comment on Facebook that we think is aimed at us. Cortisol is released when someone comes into the office and makes a flippant remark and we think, oh no, they’ve got it in for me. Cortisol is released from 24-hour media reporting of terrorist acts, plane crashes, economic doom, cancer scares and natural disasters. We think the media has the balance wrong between things that are going to trigger cortisol, and things that encourage dopamine; the good news stories never make the front page if there’s something scary or upsetting to report. What we’re experiencing through 24 hour sensationalist news and social media is an unrelenting release of cortisol, making us anxious and stressed. But…stress does serve a purpose, it’s not all bad. Acute stress is there to make us aware that things are important, dangerous or unsafe. Chronic stress, however, is very harmful and if we go through life constantly releasing cortisol over a prolonged period, it can make us mentally and physically unwell. We don’t want to class cortisol as a ‘baddie’, but we’ve got to understand its effect on our brains and have the ability to recognise and manage it accordingly.

Leaders must be mindful of the effect that Cortisol has on their team members in the workplace. The way you communicate, make decisions, handle pressure and respond to adversity has the ability to release dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin in the minds of others, or, copious amounts of cortisol. Get it right, and you're an inspirational and influential leader. Get it wrong, and you could be coming across as an oppressive, emotional and intimidating leader.

In summary: Becoming an influential leader takes time, experience and the room to make lots of mistakes. Once you understand how human beings are rewarded and intimidated, you can start to become more conscious of the way you interact with them. Think about the language you use, the body language you display and the decisions you make, especially in a crisis. The art of influential leadership lies in your ability to release dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in the minds of your people and avoid triggering the release of cortisol.


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