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Scientifically Proven: Practice Makes Perfect Leaders

Scientifically Proven: Practice Makes Perfect Leaders

Research exploring how we learn has shed light on the type of activities that best prepare managers to think clearly when under stress, writes the CEO of Ashridge Business School.

Strong leadership is arguably the most important aspect of running a business. It inspires high performance, engenders a spirit of enterprise and comforts during difficult times. It knows how to make tough decisions that affect people’s lives and livelihoods.

Becoming a nuanced, respected leader often takes executives’ years of painful self-development and time spent in lectures, classrooms and coaching manuals.

A new study suggests, however, that the long road to strong leadership could very well be bypassed.

Latest scientific research exploring how we learn has shed light on the type of development activities that best prepare managers to think more clearly when under stress.

The research, carried out by Ashridge Business School and the University of Reading in the UK, analysed the physical, emotional and learning responses of individuals in real-life simulations.

Participants of the study were fitted with heart variance monitors upon their arrival, which they were instructed to wear at all times, even while sleeping.

The programme consisted of a simulated exercise where participants ran a simulated company.

Over the course of two days, each participant had to deal with a range of challenging and often difficult leadership scenarios, which the doctors call ‘critical incidents’ and leadership challenges such as dealing with difficult conversations, managing strategic change issues or public speaking.

The rationale behind the study was that simulated experiences are as valuable from a learning perspective as actual real life situations, leading to physiological changes and brain muscle development.

Leadership expert Dr. Eve Poole, who conducted the study, believes that simulated experiences such as these are a shrewd way of preparing managers for real life situations. “In this type of scenario, the brain doesn’t distinguish between what’s real and what’s pretend. That means it really is like learning from real life, but in a safe environment, where it doesn’t really matter if you get it wrong.”

The science behind the theory suggests that she may be right.

Scientists now understand that the human brain and human behaviours are learnt through emotional responses to the experiences that we all have. These responses manifest themselves in the creation of ‘muscle memory’, forming new neural pathways. These pathways form the basis of learning during new experiences, enabling us to quickly refer back to the responses that are learnt.

In this way, practising in a simulated environment is as effective as real life – in the same way that pilots practice in aircraft simulators.

The key to guiding participants through the simulation process is to create an environment that elicits a state of emotional arousal that feels challenging but that can be overcome.

Scientists understand that neurobiologically, when a stressful situation is perceived as a challenge, the brain and body become moderately aroused, optimising brain functions such as decision making, learning and memory formation.

However if a situation is perceived as a threat, we become over-aroused and prepare for retreat, reducing cognitive functioning.

A situation is perceived as a challenge or a threat depending on whether we believe that we have the personal resources and skills to deal with it. It is through the simulation process that these mental skills are created, forming new muscle memory in the brain.

Dr Poole believes that this process has a dual impact. “It both accelerates and deepens the learning. It accelerates it by using the challenge state to achieve cognitive enhancement and it deepens it by using the emotions that the experience generates to ‘tag’ the learning so that it becomes more permanently stored in the brain.”

The findings of this research have significant implications for the way that development programmes for leaders are designed and delivered.

They show that it’s not just pilots, surgeons, F1 drivers or astronauts who benefit from simulation exercises to prepare for highly stressful and challenging incidents – business leaders do too.

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