The Brain Advantage: A book review by Bob Morris

Brain AdvantageThe Brain Advantage: Cutting-edge insights and revelations from the most recent research in neuroscience
Madeleine Van Heck, Lisa Callahan, Brad Kolar, and Ken Paller
Prometheus Books (2010)

Cutting-edge insights and revelations from the most recent research in neuroscience

There have been several dozen books published in recent years whose authors suggest what business lessons can be learned from recent research in neuroscience, and in some instances with a focus of developing metacognition. In my opinion, The Brain Advantage is among the best. I commend its coauthors — Madeleine Van Heck, Lisa Callahan, Brad Kolar, and Ken Paller — on the quality of the material they provide as well as on the clarity with which they present it. They make skillful use of several reader-friendly devices in each of the 24 chapters. These are the devices: “What’s the Story” (background and context to what follows), “Interesting, But So What?” tees up “How Can I Use This Information as a Business Leader?” (applying what recent and relevant brain research reveals), and “What If?” (accommodates the need for contingency planning), There is also an end-of-chapter “Notes” section. This format achieves two separate but related objectives: It actively engages the reader in the flow of information, insights, and counsel; it also facilitates, indeed expedites frequent review of key material later.

At this point, three key points need to be stressed. Contrary to what many people believe, the capabilities of the human brain can be developed over time. That is, “intellectual firepower” can increased, sometimes substantially, Next, as Carol Dweck’s research clearly indicates, people tend to have one of two mindsets: growth or fixed. The former embraces potentialities, the latter denies them. Henry Ford probably had this in mind when observing, “whether you think you or think you can’t, you’re probably right.” Third and finally, one of a business leader’s most important responsibilities is to help create a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. If a workplace is viewed as a “garden,” then leaders must function as competent and caring “gardeners.”

Of greatest interest and value to me is what the co-authors have to share when addressing themes, subjects, and challenges such as these, with each preceded by “How and why”:

o Constraints help to free up an executive’s mind
o Everyone involved in the given enterprise (especially leaders) need to ask “What is the most efficient way to….?”
o It is imperative to “connect the right dots” and continuously add to their number
o Learning can take a great deal of time and un-learning will extend the length of that process
o There must be enduring trust between and among people involved in the given enterprise
o Being “authentic” does not preclude self-improvement (e.g. becoming a better listener)
o We cannot control most of what happens to us but we can control how we respond to it
o It is imperative to encourage and appreciate, indeed demand principled dissent
o Being right and thinking we are right are always the same (“Believe but verify”)
o The “halo effect” is usually a perception, not a reality
o What we see and believe is often what we expect to see and prefer to believe
o Sequential tasking is usually much more productive than multitasking
o Selective memory is usually insufficient and often unreliable, if not false
o Deep and deliberate practice under expert supervision is the best way to strengthen cognitive skills

No list such as this nor commentary on the specifics of each could possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of coverage in the book, much less to the quality of information, insights, and counsel that Madeleine Van Heck, Lisa Callahan, Brad Kolar, and Ken Paller provide in abundance. However, I hope I have indicated why I hold their book in such high regard.

I agree with Ken Paller who, in the Afterword, stresses the importance of integrity when taking into full account the relevance of neuroscience to leadership. “Integrity and compassion for others should be Job Number One. Hopefully a neuroscientific understanding of the human mind [in terms of perception, memory, decision making, and all other aspects of human behavior] will ultimately shed further light on why these principles are so important.” Obviously, all organizations, whatever their size and nature may be, need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of their operations. The development of such leadership should be guided and informed by those principles. That is even more important now because more recent research in neuroscience has generated and abundance of additional insights and revelations since this book was published in 2010.

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