Inside The Wild Brains Of Trailblazing Leaders


Published as part of the

Over the years spent collaborating on in-depth studies of hospitality leadership — including over 100 analytical interviews and assessment tests — my interest and co-research in the “anatomy” of leadership and the interplay of nature versus nurture has led to several studies published in the North American Journal of Psychology and the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly. Our work in this area has consistently found that leadership is more a mental state than a professional role or pursuit. The human brain has evolved over tens of thousands of years into an approximately-three-pound organic computer whose sole task is to make things more certain.

Gaining mastery and a sense of control over our environment is, therefore, an inherent motivation. But beyond the brain’s complex sophistication and capabilities, our research suggests that something remarkable happens in the minds of trailblazing leaders, which parallels near “superhuman” flexibility and proficiency in their cognitive abilities. The social and medical sciences refer to this phenomenon as mental fluidity or enhanced neuroplasticity, and it implies a special hardwiring in the circuitry of the brain.

Whereas normal brains filter information to maintain a functional segregation among perceptions, thoughts and feelings, the brains of superior leaders with frequent so-called flashes of genius or entrepreneurial intuition instead seem to show more unfiltered cross-talk among different brain regions. The result is a “wild brain” with the raw capacity to perceive and process external and internal information beyond the capabilities of average people.

This mental state has competitive advantages, because one of the major consequences are keen abilities both to think in the moment and anticipate future circumstances or outcomes. This competency is seen across many dimensions of professional performance. Outstanding predictive abilities, for instance among elite athletes, are based on the highly efficient unconscious processing of sensory cues and exceptionally accurate mental algorithms. This also explains aspects of superior performance in highly competitive, creative and fast-changing roles or fields.

Wild Brains: The Good, Bad And The Ugly 
Of course, wild brains also come with challenges. A critical but often unrecognized aspect of leadership development is learning to harness and focus the brain. This is easier said than done, but self-awareness and adopting certain habits go a long way in leveraging the strengths and mitigating the weaknesses.

  1. If you are a trailblazer, you tend to promote abstract, creative, intuitive and innovative modes of thinking. In practice, this means that most people up and down the organizational chart will have difficulty following your train of thought or keeping pace with your cognitive gymnastics. The best defence here is to routinely show patience with others by encouraging questions and taking time to fully explain the rationale behind your decisions and actions.
  2. It also helps if you set realistic performance expectations with others. Remember that very few people will share your work ethic, brainstorms or the need for mental stimulations. The key is to set expectations based on what they can do, not what you can do.
  3. The 24/7 nature of a trailblazer brain means that you are more susceptible to myriad chronic stressors, including depression, impulsivity, distractibility, moodiness and psychological tensions that manifest as physical symptoms. Moreover, many famous leaders have had infamous private lives characterized by extremism, hedonism, impulsivity or the blatant disregard for social norms. Recognizing these symptoms and characteristics is key to finding productive outlets to relieve the pressure.
  4. Our research has found that trailblazers benefit greatly from having a personal coach, mentor or a “personal board of advisors.” If you exhibit these aspects of leadership, don’t be afraid to seek the assistance of others. Remember that asking for help is a sign of maturity, not weakness. There are many paradoxes inherent to successful leadership, and in the end, the things that make you technically brilliant are often the same things that can derail your career. Self-awareness is knowledge, and knowledge is power.