A recent article in The Harvard Business Review [HBR] reminds us of the vital role of emotional intelligence (empathy and self-knowledge) in effective leadership:

“Claudio Fernández-Aráoz found in an analysis of new C-level executives that those who had been hired for their self-discipline, drive, and intellect were sometimes later fired for lacking basic social skills. In other words, the people Fernández-Aráoz studied had smarts in spades, but their inability to get along socially on the job was professionally self-defeating.”

Nothing new there. What is new is the discovery that what leaders do actually affects their own and their followers brain chemistry! In other words, followers mirror their leaders – literally.

Perhaps the most stunning recent discovery in behavioral neuroscience is the identification of mirror neurons in widely dispersed areas of the brain. Italian neuroscientists found them by accident while monitoring a particular cell in a monkey’s brain that fired only when the monkey raised its arm. One day a lab assistant lifted an ice cream cone to his own mouth and triggered a reaction in the monkey’s cell. It was the first evidence that the brain is peppered with neurons that mimic, or mirror, what another being does.

The HBR concludes that “leaders emotions and actions prompt followers to mirror those feelings and deeds.” A recent experiment confirmed this:

In a recent study, our colleague Marie Dasborough observed two groups: One received negative performance feedback accompanied by positive emotional signals—namely, nods and smiles; the other was given positive feedback that was delivered critically, with frowns and narrowed eyes. In subsequent interviews conducted to compare the emotional states of the two groups, the people who had received positive feedback accompanied by negative emotional signals reported feeling worse about their performance than did the participants who had received good-natured negative feedback. In effect, the delivery was more important than the message itself. And everybody knows that when people feel better, they perform better. So, if leaders hope to get the best out of their people, they should continue to be demanding but in ways that foster a positive mood in their teams.

My Observations

1. There are huge implications in this research for pastoral leadership.

2. How can we maximize this powerful effect in training students for the ministry? More mentoring and less lecturing?

3. Think about how our Lord capitalized on this during his own earthly ministry. “And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him” (Mk. 3:14). “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mat. 4:19).

4. What about the impact of spending time in the Lord’s presence today: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). And what that verse highlights is that the Christian has much more than mirror neurons to change them into the image of Christ! We have the power and influence of Christ’s own Spirit.