What Makes a Great Leader?

By Ed Rutkowski

Washington State Convention Center, Seattle, Wash. (June 7, 2017)—John Medina, an author and developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, delivered the first-ever closing session in the history of AIHce on June 7. By turns manic and contemplative, Medina summarized the state of knowledge in his abstruse field, particularly how scientists’ current understanding of the brain reveals certain traits of successful leaders.

Medina began his presentation with a seemingly strange admission for someone with his professional pedigree: “We just don’t know that much about how the brain works.” What we do know, however, can potentially change the way we identify and groom leaders in our organizations.

Successful leaders tend to exhibit high “executive function,” which Medina characterized as a facility for solving problems and maintaining composure in difficult circumstances. Research has shown that people with high executive function have a range of desirable qualities: they’re less moody, better at managing anger, less likely to commit crimes, less prone to alcohol and substance abuse, more creative, and have more satisfying relationships when compared to the rest of the population. For children, high executive function is a predictor of future success in the workplace. Medina suggested that workplace health and safety professionals, whose jobs involve “life and death situations,” would do well to hire people with high executive function.

Another characteristic of successful leaders is strong “theory of mind,” an ability to understand others’ intentions, beliefs, and desires. “People can’t read each other’s minds, but they can read each other’s cues,” Medina said. “People with strong theory of mind do this.”

Although much about the brain remains unknown, Medina told attendees, the concepts of executive function and theory of mind “begin to make the case for bringing the power of neuroscience right into your world.”

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist. He can be reached at (703) 846-0734.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce Daily page.