Leadership, social skills and vagus nerve

Recent theories on successful leadership appraise social skills and emotional intelligence as essential traits that form a great leader.

What is intelligence?

Over the past centuries, and somehow still today, cognitive intelligence or what is known as IQ, has been the number one criterion for professional accomplishment and social esteem. At the beginning of the 20th century, social intelligence has been acknowledged as a different form of intelligence (Edward Thorndike, 1920), that gives access to a whole different set of skills: the ability to understand and manage people and to act wisely in interpersonal relationships. At the end of the 20th century, Howard Gardner (1983) broadened this idea in his theory of Multiple Intelligences where he suggested that all people have different kinds of “intelligences” that he re-grouped in 9 types: visual-spatial, linguistic-verbal, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential.

What is emotional intelligence?

It is the ability to identify, assess and regulate one’s own emotions and the emotions of others. Emotional intelligence (pivotal to effective collaboration), has been appointed as an important aspect of a great leader (Goleman 1998). According to Goleman’s model (1998) emotional intelligence drives leadership performance through 5 aspects: 1) self-awareness of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals, 2) self-regulation of one’s emotions and impulses and adaptation to changing circumstances, 3) social skills in order to move people in the desired direction through managing their emotions, 4) empathy, that is recognition, understanding, and consideration of other people’s feelings especially when making decisions, and 5) motivation of oneself to achieve for the sake of achievement. By understanding and taking into consideration other’s emotions (empathy), a leader can direct people towards the desired direction not by imposing his authority but through creating the appropriate context and motivation.

In the brain of a leader

During the 21st century, several theories emerged as a continuation to Goleman’s model and in an attempt to link research in leadership with cognitive neuroscience advancements. Inspired by Matthew Lieberman’s work (2013), who first distinguished between the business brain and the social brain in relation to two equivalent brain networks of activity, Boyatzis et al. (2014) further exposed two differentiated leadership roles that would correspond to each network.

The task-positive network

First, the efficiency-oriented, “get the work done” type of leader with high cognitive intelligence and brain activity that would correspond to the so-called task-positive network (TPN). This network consists of an ensemble of areas that activate simultaneously whenever we are carrying out a specific cognitive task with analytical-empirical-critical reasoning, such as financial planning, metrics or problem-solving, requiring focused attention, working memory, mathematical reasoning, decision-making and action. This is also referred to as the executive function network and has been largely evidenced in tasks requiring external attention and dealing with inanimate objects or situations.

The default mode network

Second, the building effective relationships, “nice to be with” type of leader with high emotional intelligence and brain activity that would correspond to the so-called default-mode network (DMN). This network is active when the brain is at rest and mind-wandering, when recalling autobiographical memory, reflecting on one’s own emotions and regulating them, mentalizing other’s emotional and cognitive states, engaging in social interactions and making moral decisions. This network is often active when the attention is directed towards internal states or when taking in account internal states of others.

Two distinct modes of function

Those two networks, with a very distinct neural signature, do not function simultaneously; they have an opposing activity: when one is active the other one is suppressed. This means that when you are in the middle of a problem solving you are not able (in terms of neuronal wiring) to take in account other’s emotions. If you do so, you are being counterproductive as you are switching to another mode of functioning and thus getting distracted or losing coherence (and time) in the task achievement. On the other hand, when you are dealing with an emotional crisis of a person and you try to reason there will be a major misunderstanding or conflict because reasoning does not resonate with the state of mind of the interlocutor.

Naturally, those networks cycle between activation of TPN and activation of DMN. Simultaneous activity of both networks has been observed in people prone to “Machiavellian thinking”. In such cases, humans are considered as instruments that are strategically used in the achievement of a task, without taking in consideration their emotions or needs. This pattern is considered as the neural signature of the tendency to manipulate and instrumentalize people in a dehumanized manner.

Above all professions, a leader is very often brought about dealing with both task and people management. A leader who can flexibly switch between those two modes of neural function thrives in both task achievement and relationship development, carrying out a successful leadership role.

Companies interested in leadership development need to begin by assessing the willingness of individuals to enter a change program.” 

Goleman & Boyatzis, Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership

In the body of a leader

Neurons in the brain and the spine form the central neural system; neurons in the body form big nerves that transverse every part of the body and are altogether refer to as the autonomous nervous system, for its lack of deliberate conscious control. This system is further divided into the sympathetic branch (arousal) and the parasympathetic branch (rest).

A link between the above-mentioned networks and the function of the autonomous nervous system has been studied. Early findings suggest that the task-positive network is more linked to the sympathetic nervous activity (alertness and focused attention), while the default-mode network correlates with activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (resting and socializing). The two branches of the autonomous nervous system also have opposing activity: when one is active the other one is deactivated and vice versa. The sympathetic branch gets highly active under a stressful or emergency condition and is normally activated whenever we need to carry out a specific task. The parasympathetic system gets active during rest, digest, sleep, meditation or specific conscious breath control techniques. The vagus nerve, the major part of the parasympathetic branch, has been related to social skills, sensitivity to social cues, trust and social connectedness (Kok and Fredrickson 2010). Projections of the vagus nerve innervate all muscles implicated in social communication from the larynx to the tongue and facial muscles (Polyvagal Theory, S. Porges 2011).

Our modern lifestyle demands a strong and constant sympathetic activity with few inactivity or resting moments. A big challenge currently is to train the autonomous nervous system to flexibly switch between the two branches in order to maintain homeostasis and mental health. Such flexibility would also enhance switching from the task-positive network to the default-mode and vice versa and could be beneficial for both leaders and self-leadership development. A potent practice that alternatively activates both branches of the autonomous nervous system is yoga. Traditionally, yogic practices encompass a variety of tools that train the breath, the body and the mind. A consistent practice works simultaneously on the autonomous nervous system through the breath, the activation of all body systems (immune, digestive, hormonal) through physical practice (postures) and on the brain wiring through meditation. With this in mind, Actitudes Coaching developed the Body & Mind Connection program based on yogic teachings and scientific evidence.