Neuroscience, Leadership, Tom Fikes and Chad Dreier

This past week in the seminar in executive leadership I co-teach, Professor Tom Fikes delivered a guest lecture and Chad Dreier made a presentation. A professor of psychology and neuroscience at Westmont, Tom heads our Center for Social Neuroscience. Chad is the retired chairman and CEO of Ryland Homes and a great friend to the college.

Tom interpreted the brain maps he had conducted earlier on every member of the class. He identified several principles that help us understand how the brain works and influences our ability to lead effectively. Consider these central principles:

  1. The brain is oriented toward action, both our own and that of the people around us, and is influenced by it.
  2. The brain is more of a relational organ that an information-processing organ.
  3. The brain is highly plastic; in an appropriate environment and mental set, it has dramatic capacities to rewire itself.

Tom FikesThe brain is an attention set that both shapes and is shaped by our biases, habits and what we pay attention to.Tom also wanted us to understand how our mirror neuron system works and what role empathy plays in our effectiveness. Our mirror neuron system is like human Wi-Fi. We feel rapport with someone because our mirror neuron system connects with another person’s mirror neuron system. This connection gives us a capacity for empathy. In turn, empathy gives us the ability to connect those under our leadership, and this human connection produces trust and inspires confidence.

After Tom finished, Chad Dreier shared his life story and philosophy of leadership and talked about the economic crisis of 2008, triggered by the collapse of the mortgage and housing markets. Chad is a remarkable person. A native of Los Angeles, he attended Loyola Marymount where he majored in accounting and played as the starting catcher on the college’s baseball team. He married Ginni and entered the Air Force; together they raised two children. Now 45 years later, he celebrates a life filled with rich memories, new in-laws, young grandchildren and a career that featured huge opportunities, great successes and daunting challenges. As Chad neared the end of his presentation, he shared his list of “10 Ethical Principles Every Leader Should Follow.” Here they are in specific detail:

  1. Ethics are set from the top-down.
  2. Ethics need to make sense and work from the bottom-up.
  3. There is no hall of fame for good business practices and ethics.
  4. No one is immune to temptation or missteps so don’t try to operate above the law.
  5. Business ethics need material validation.
  6. Sometimes the right answer and the right path aren’t always clear.
  7. Ethics are compromised one decision at a time.
  8. Corporations and CEOs are presumed guilty when anything goes wrong and are seldom the first to get credit when things go right.
  9. When you’re successful, you have to give back.
  10. You can teach ethics, so do it in word and deed.

One of the most humorous guys I know, Chad ended by emphasizing two things: Never lose your sense of humor, and your common sense is usually your most reliable asset.

Both presentations linger in my mind as I think about the work of effective leaders and the need to follow our moral compass as we strive to lead well. The idea that we can change and re-wire our brains for greater understanding and effectiveness is remarkable. As our knowledge of the brain and how it influences human leadership continues to expand, our opportunity for greater effectiveness will only grow and develop.


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