How to Create a “Brain-Friendly” Leadership Model that Works
How to Create a “Brain-Friendly” Leadership Model that Works

New research from the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) shows that more companies in the US and Europe are using leadership models. This new tool can have a significant impact on culture change and on a company’s learning strategy.

The leadership models currently in use vary widely. In a MERIT webinar on 12 December 2019, Andrea Derler, Director of Industry Research at NLI, revealed the characteristics of leadership models that make a difference and drive successful business transformations.


What is a leadership model?

Think of it as a values statement that is actionable, rather than descriptive. In times of change, organisations often focus on their core values, which help them define their purpose and identity. However, putting those values into action is significantly more difficult than naming them.

Andrea explained that values statements, in particular, do not work: unfortunately, there is no correlation between them and business performance. On the other hand, employee surveys show that leaders’ actions and behaviours make a difference. A leadership model is meant to guide those actions and behaviours so that they are in line with a company’s goals.

Most leadership models now in use do not perform well, Andrea’s research team found based on a survey of over 280 decision-makers. A leadership works if it drives behaviour. But only 28% of the leaders surveyed used their leadership model to guide feedback, performance, and goal-setting conversations. This demonstrates that most models are not actively used and therefore cannot have a significant impact.

Further, only 27% of decision-makers said that their leadership model was meaningful, and a dismal 17% found it easy to remember. Only a third of leaders thought that their leadership model corresponded to the organisational culture – a further disincentive to applying it.


The crucial mistakes in designing leadership models

While leadership models are gaining ground, they are not living up to their potential. Why is that? NLI’s study identifies the mistakes HR executives make in designing these models and defines the characteristics of strong leadership models that can drive culture change and improve performance.


1. Leadership models are too complicated

A key mistake common to most leadership models the NLI studied is that they are too complicated. There are understandable reasons for this: design teams “try to think of every single scenario that leaders may come across” in order to set clear expectations. Unfortunately, this leads to exhaustive, legalistic documents that are hardly applicable in practice.

Neuroscience shows that we can hold up to 3-4 items in our mind at any given moment. But the vast majority of models the NLI surveyed listed more than six behaviours, and almost half included more than 20. These findings were mirrored in a poll during the MERIT webinar: the majority of attendees whose company has, or is working on, a leadership model said that their model includes 6-20 items. Therefore, it is no surprise that decision-makers have a hard time remembering their leadership models. To be “brain-friendly” for the user and influence behaviour, leadership models need to be short, punchy, and instantly memorable.


2. Leadership models are generic

A second mistake most design teams make is to write overly universal and generic models. Often these documents are compiled from industry terminologies, scientific research, borrowings from other models, and recommendations from consultants. But the key to a good model, Andrea said, is making it your own. A leadership brand should be coming through that sets the company apart from its competitors and creates a sense of authenticity for leaders.

A good example is HP’s “Make It Happen”. “We’ve been told that people are now leaving meetings with the phrase and saying to each other, ‘Hey, let’s go and make this happen’,” Andrea shared. An effective model should speak to leaders on an individual level so that they can embody it and pass it on to everyone at the company. HP crowd-sourced and tested about 300 phrases for their leadership to arrive at the final three that are straightforward, relatable, and original. The effort is paying off: they are one of the few major success stories of a complete company transformation.


3. Leadership models are not coherent

A third mistake that makes so many leadership models ineffective is a lack of coherence. A model may be great, but if it is not aligned with the company’s strategy and culture, this creates a problem. A variety of competing expectations can create cognitive dissonance, Andrea said, which makes both the leaders and the overall strategy less effective. On the contrary, an actionable leadership model distilled from the organisation’s purpose and goals can be used as a tool to unify strategy, leadership, and culture, improving business outcomes – exactly what happened at HP.


4. Not using a leadership model

A final mistake companies are making is not employing a business model. Andrea’s research shows that this tool is mainly used in large organisations that are already focussed on leadership development. “I think that’s a missed opportunity for a lot of smaller and mid-sized organisations, because leadership is important at every size”, Andrea said. “That’s a lot of work to do.”


The solution: designing a successful leadership model

What are the secrets of the few successful leadership models out there? The NLI distilled their three most important characteristics. First, those models are sticky: short and memorable. Second, they are meaningful: they aren’t just adapted from external sources, but are related to leaders’ everyday experience. Third, good models are coherent. They are not at odds with the organisation’s strategy and culture, or with other frameworks that leaders need to abide by.

When faced with a new leadership model, leaders ask themselves, “Can I remember this? Do I care about this? Does it fit with what I am asked to do?” If the answer to all these questions is “yes”, then you have created an outstanding sticky, meaningful, and coherent leadership model.


Are you working on a new leadership model for your company, or would you like to develop one? The NeuroLeadership Institute’s paper on brain-friendly leadership models includes data, in-depth analysis, and more advice that will set you up for success. You can download the paper here.


To learn more about the ways you can apply neuroscience research in your work, join MERIT’s upcoming webinar on decision-making with Paul Gimenez, Director of Mentora Labs, Mentora Institute, on 30 January.


By Ani Kodjabasheva