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The Neurobiology Behind Leadership


Published: 07 February 2016

Cover image for article: The Neurobiology Behind Leadership

Nurse leaders are the people who, in any role, are able to ‘make things happen’. Leadership skills are what enable a nurse to advocate for their patient and ensure the best possible level of care is taking place. It also enables nurses to create a positive work environment, one that retains staff for a longer period of time. They build strong relationships across departments and with patients and their families.

All nurses need the ability to be good leaders.

The Biology Behind Leadership

The Biology of Leadership
Recent research shows that the actions of great leaders affect their own neurology and in turn affect the neurology of their followers.

In the Harvard Business Review Daniel Goleman and Richard E. Boyatzis write that “the leader-follower dynamic is not a case of two (or more) independent brains reacting consciously or unconsciously to each other. Rather, the individual minds become, in a sense, fused into a single system.”

The following biological functions play a key role in this fusion of individual minds into one cohesive system:

Mirror Neurons

These neurons occur throughout the brain and mimic, or mirror, the emotional behaviour of other people. For a leader, this means that the emotions they display are mirrored by those around them.

Spindle Cells

These cells allow us to make quick unconscious judgements, choose between instinctive responses and decide whether someone is trustworthy. Good leaders know to trust their gut feelings because these quick judgements, triggered by spindle cells, often prove to be accurate.


When two people interact, oscillators regulate the movement of their bodies so they move together in a harmonious way. You might notice that when in conversation with someone you unconsciously move into a similar position or pose to theirs; this is the effect of oscillators. When people move well together they are consciously or unconsciously attuned to each other.

Leaders who are aware of these biological factors can use them to their benefit. But, conscious attempts to copy these subconscious behaviours will most likely come across as forced. The best way to increase these biological functions is to work on your social intelligence.

The Socially Intelligent Leader

The Socially Intelligent Leader

In order to improve your social intelligence and increase your leadership skills, it is important to recognise the hallmarks of a socially intelligent leader. Goleman and Boyatzis list seven traits that are displayed by good leaders.

  1. Empathy – understanding what motivates people and being sensitive to others’ needs.
  2. Attunement – actively listening and having the ability to gauge the moods of others.
  3. Organisational awareness – an understanding of the workplace culture and the values that are held by the organisation.
  4. Influence – the ability to engage, persuade and inspire others in order to achieve individual and shared goals.
  5. Developing others – being a good mentor and coach so that all members of the team are able to increase their abilities and skills.
  6. Inspiration – the articulation of a vision that creates enthusiasm and passion in others.
  7. Teamwork – leading by example and seeking feedback and input from all team members.

What can you do to build your social intelligence and become a nurse leader?

What can you do to build your social intelligence and become a nurse leader?

Improve and develop your speaking and conversation skills. This can be achieved by attending networking events and through developing your public speaking skills.

Ronald E. Riggio has these tips to offer on developing your social skills:

  • Be more attentive to the social interactions that are going on around you.
  • Improve and develop your speaking and conversation skills. This can be achieved by attending networking events and through developing your public speaking skills.
  • Be an active listener – give your full attention to the person you are listening to. Paraphrase what you have heard to ensure you have understood and to show you were listening.
  • Be mindful of your own behaviour in social interactions. Mindfulness can have a huge impact on how you handle a given situation.
  • Take note of your successes and failures in social situations. Focus on giving yourself positive feedback on how to improve next time, rather than berating yourself for social missteps.
  • Seek out charismatic and charming people in social situations. By watching these people, you will be able to model their behaviour in your own interactions.

Nurse Leaders use a combination of many skills. Of these skills social intelligence stands out as the most essential one to master.

For some, charisma and charm that allow them to influence and persuade others come easily. For those of us who are less gifted, there are ways to improve our social skills. Developing these skills will enables us as nurses to become a valuable asset to any healthcare organisation.
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  • Goleman, D. and Boyatzis, R. (2008). Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership.Harvard Business Review.
  • Riggio, Ronald E. (2014). What Is Social Intelligence? Why Does It Matter?. Psychology Today
  • Australian College of Nursing (ACN) (2015). Nurse Leadership, ACN, Canberra.[…]Comment



Portrait of Janette Cooper
Janette Cooper

Janette Cooper is a registered nurse, currently working as a gastroenterology procedure nurse at Noarlunga Hospital. She has a Bachelor of Nursing, a Graduate Certificate in Health Service Management from Flinders University, and a certificate in Gastroenterology Nursing from The Queensland University of Technology. In 2012 she began a life coaching course with The Coaching Institute in Melbourne. It has allowed her to combine her two passions of nursing and personal development. She divides her time between gastroenterology nursing and promoting personal development and leadership by means of frequently published articles through Ausmed, leadership presentations and workshops and coaching health professionals wanting to develop their leadership potential. See Educator Profile

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