Leadership and the ‘human operating system’

Understanding how the brain works can improve connections with others.

April 15, 2020

Being an effective leader requires not only understanding the people you’re leading, but also how the human brain operates and how it affects a person’s actions and emotions.

Responding to people and the problems associated with emotional tension is “a messy business,” says Daniel Wood, executive and leadership coach and behavioral analyst.

He explored how the brain works and why it’s important for leaders to understand how it operates in “The Senior Leader and The Human Operating System,” a virtual roundtable from the CUNA Councils.

Leaders need to understand that “everything you say and do comes from where you are and where you’ve been,” Wood says. “Leaders can influence the structure and functioning of their brain over time.”

‘Leaders can influence the structure and functioning of their brain over time.’
Daniel Wood

The three areas of the brain each have a specific function, Wood says:

  • The brain stem—or sensory brain—captures the messages the brain receives from the five senses.
  • The limbic system—or the emotional brain—processes the emotional responses the brain has from the sensory input, and contains the areas that store long-term and unprocessed memories.
  • The cerebral cortex—or the thinking brain—is used for learning, reason, and logic processing.

The body responds to external stimuli, such as tone of voice, gestures, and looks. These stimuli can ignite the limbic system and inhibit clear thinking, Wood says.

Areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus, are responsible for emotional responses and how the brain reacts to perceived threats.

Understanding how the brain operates allows leaders to reduce conflict and connect with others. People display “clusters of signs” that indicate how they’re feeling, Wood says.

When people keep their heads down, fail to make eye contact, or talk with their hands in front of their mouth, they may be disengaged. This realization sets the stage for improvement.

“Repeated conflict can cause patterned traits of fear and isolation,” Wood says, “but patterned, consistent, and reinforced positive skills can be built over time.”