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Leadership and the Brain: Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century

A recent New York Times article on preparing for the unexpected in the changing and evolving workforce caught my eye. It said: “Our capacity to predict the future is limited, while our capacity to believe in such predictions is unlimited.”

It is widely accepted that 21st century trends in leadership are increasingly about disruptive ideas that require major shifts in our beliefs, patterns, and expectations. But as John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “faced with the choice of changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

As a researcher in adult learning, leadership development, and the brain, I can explain why this happens; as a professor, I keep working on ways to counteract this impulse. It helps to begin by explaining to my students just how their brains work and why they work that way. Essentially, even though at some level we all realize that it’s important to check our assumptions and be prepared to revisit what we think we know, our adult brains prefer to stick with what they (that is, we) already “know” and believe.

The essential process of learning is the same for everyone at any age—neurons fire, signals move across synapses, and connections are enhanced or weakened. But that’s doesn’t take into account adults’ greater store of life experiences that sets them apart from younger learners, and even from one another.

Experience is the basis of all learning. Beginning in infancy, electro-chemical traces of experiences are stored in neural networks. These interconnected networks, which are ultimately composed of billions of neurons, are continually elaborated and revised throughout our lifespans. Networks constantly form and reform, but experiences that are repeated create stronger, more lasting patterns.

Such patterns are the subject of intense study in various social sciences—psychologists call them “identity,” sociologists call them “society,” and anthropologists call them “culture.” These patterns also determine our worldview and inform a lot of how we think, feel, and act—though we rarely realize that these neural networks are the basis for what appears to us simply as obvious and natural.

Brains also have a fundamental imperative to insure survival of the organism. When early hominids roamed the primeval savannah, survival depended on fight, freeze, or flee. Those who were right and fast lived to be our distant ancestors. Although we have over many eons developed new brain structures and functions that permit greater flexibility and a wider range of responses, modern brains still feel most comfortable reacting quickly and with certainty.

Which also leads to negative bias. What I call the anxious brain operates on the “better safe than sorry” principle and is seven times more likely to favor a negative over a positive appraisal of a new or challenging situation. Clearly, this can be a problematic impulse when we approach disruptive ideas and are facing new, adaptive challenges where there are no easy answers.

But this isn’t the whole story, or our species never would have made it to the 21st century. My students are happy to know that we also have a well-developed curious brain that helps to mitigate the effects of the anxious brain. Instead of clinging to what is familiar and avoiding uncertainty, the curious brain relishes novelty and seeks situations that challenge it. We see this every day in our fondness for puzzles, games of skill (such as bridge, Scrabble, chess), rubix cubes, and so on. Furthermore, our brains encourage us to continue in this vein of discovery and development by releasing a rush of feel-good hormones when we are successful.

Knowing this helps my students—mid-career professionals in a graduate program—to deal with the reality that their brains will be asked to go beyond what is familiar and comfortable. It is also important that I establish a safe learning environment—one where, as one educator said, we “think of every moment of not understanding as an opportunity to learn.” The tiger is not really lurking around the corner, waiting to pounce on someone who doesn’t have an instantaneous, “right” answer. Once their brains are willing to tolerate ambiguity and not-knowing, new learning is possible.

In my experience, such new flexibility in the face of uncertainty ultimately leads toward greater complexity of mind. As a result, some of those early-formed and deeply etched patterns called identity and culture no longer limit one’s capacity for fresh thinking. Knowing more about how the brain works may make it more likely that adults can learn to—literally—change their minds. If so, we are probably going to be more effective in dealing with the fact that, as the article in the Times said about predicting the future: “The safest prediction is that reality will outstrip our imaginations.”

Can we learn to change our minds and thus deepen our understanding—of ourselves and the world around us? A lot depends on how the learning environment is constructed. Does it recognize and respond to the concerns of the anxious brain? Does it encourage the curious brain to reach beyond its comfort zone? To find out more about adult brains and learning, check out

Author’s Bio

Kathleen Taylor, Ph.D., is Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Saint Mary’s College of California. Her research and writing focuses on the intersection of adult development and learning. Facilitating Learning with the Adult Brain in Mind describes recent discoveries in neuroscience, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind that suggest new “best practices” for teaching and learning. Kathleen’s professional development workshops and keynotes on learning and the brain are presented internationally in various educational and organizational settings.

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