Leadership thought:  Leadership is about Connection


By Lindsay Braithwaite

Ubuntu. ’A person is a person through connection with others.’

The above definition of the famous African concept of Ubuntu, applies aptly to the Lead with Humanity approach to Leadership. Simply put, we cannot lead if we are not connected to the people we are leading.

And so, what do we mean by ‘connection’?

We are likely to be familiar with the feeling of being connected to someone else.  In this instance, I would like to explore ‘connection’ from a Neuroscientific perspective.

When we experience a sense of belonging and a sense of value in an engagement with another person, it is, on one level, because we feel personally valued.  On a deeper level, it is because our values are in alignment with the values of that other person. When this happens, our brains produce the neurotransmitter Oxytocin, commonly referred to as the bonding neurotransmitter, resulting in greater levels of trust. Consequently, when we feel the certainty of trust, our levels of doubt are replaced by increased willingness, motivation and commitment. We feel we are in safe hands.

With the increased production of Oxytocin, our stress levels are reduced and we are naturally more receptive to creative thinking. Cortisol, the hormone produced when we are under stress, reduces the production of Oxytocin and prohibits our ability to think clearly and creatively. We become doubting and defensive and we feel the need to ‘armour up’ rather than collaborate.

It is becoming increasingly important for leaders to create opportunities to develop connections with those we lead.  We can create these opportunities by clearly illustrating the value system we live by and thereby allowing others to identify with those same values. Through this connection, we create a sense of belonging with elevated trust levels.

If trust is required for ‘connection’, then leadership requires consistency in the behaviour of the leader. Levels of trust will be reduced if followers experience erratic, unpredictable behaviour from leadership and are uncertain of what to expect. Consistent behaviour requires excellent self-management, especially in high-stress environments.  When under pressure, it is critically important to show up in a way that is consistent with established values and expectations, and to create ‘stability and safety’ for followers. This can only occur where leaders have well developed Emotional and Spiritual Intelligence.  By Emotional Intelligence I mean a high level of self-awareness (and by self-awareness, I mean understanding your own emotions).  By Spiritual Intelligence, I mean a deep sense of knowing who you are and your life’s purpose. This well-developed emotional and spiritual intelligence results in the ability to regulate your emotions and to show up in a consistently appropriate way.

Where there is little or no connection between a leader and followers, the default leadership style is control. This becomes the style, when willingness and collaboration are diminished, and levels of suspicion are increased. Examples of this ‘controlling’ style of leadership can be found everywhere, in families, workplaces and politics.

Eleanor Rooseveldt said:

‘To handle yourself, use your head – to handle others use your heart’.

In fact, more recent Neuroscience findings tell us that we have three brains.  Three functioning and complex neural networks in our head, our gut and our heart. The more we, as leaders, can harness creativity (head),  courage (gut) and compassion (heart), the better our ability to connect with others, in an increasingly complex and volatile world.