Not everyone is born a leader. But the good news for anyone who’s not is that those abilities can be developed. This is part of the message that Wharton Neuroscience Initiative director Michael Platt has been communicating in his teaching, research, and now a new book: The Leader’s Brain: Enhance Your Leadership, Build Stronger Teams, Make Better Decisions, and Inspire Greater Innovation with Neuroscience. Platt recently sat down with Wharton School Press’s senior editor, Brett LoGiurato, to discuss his new book and various initiatives he’s spearheading at Wharton and elsewhere at the University of Pennsylvania.
Brett LoGiurato: Congratulations on the publication of your book, The Leader’s Brain. What spurred you to write the book?
Michael Platt: I just feel like the time is right. I have been at Wharton for about five years now. I’ve been teaching Brain Science for Business to MBA students, undergraduates, as well as leaders in the field — practitioners, through executive education. It’s really clear that the insights and technologies from neuroscience can have a major impact on business in everything from marketing and brand strategy to leadership, to management, and to inspiring innovation. My goal is really to reach a much wider audience, so that everybody can benefit from the lessons of neuroscience.
How did you first enter into studying neuroscience? Specifically, you write a lot in the book about your work with monkeys, and I was wondering if you can talk about what they have taught you about how to apply neuroscience in various forms?
Yes, so I’ve been fascinated with monkeys since I was a kid, because they’re so similar to us in so many ways. That’s why they’re so much fun to watch at the zoo. And as I moved through my academic career, I was really trying to understand human nature and why we are in some ways so similar to our monkey cousins and in some ways different. I spent a lot of time out in the field, out in the jungle, watching monkeys and learning from them. I eventually decided that if I wanted to understand what makes us human, I would have to understand how our brains work and how that leads to the decisions that we make.
You have a unique role at Penn, with appointments in three different schools and as director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative. How does that cross-disciplinary perspective help serve your research?
I think it’s really critical to have full appointments in the School of Medicine and the School of Arts and Sciences and the Wharton School. It really plants my feet firmly in the disciplines that are so important for driving our work, which takes the problem set from business and leadership, looks at it through the lens of psychology, and utilizes the techniques and technologies from neuroscience. [To learn more about Platt’s research and the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, read Wharton Magazine‘s feature story here.]
Your book is about the intersection of neuroscience and business. What are some examples of neuroscience that you yourself have put into practice as a leader and as a manager?
I think that there are a few things that are really important insights from neuroscience. One that is so critical is that we are human beings, and we are social creatures by nature. We are wired that way. One of the most important jobs of the leader is to connect with the people that they manage and to help create environments in which people can work together efficiently and effectively and with great esprit de corps. There are a variety of lessons from neuroscience that teach us how to do that better — everything from things as simple as making eye contact with the people with whom you’re talking, to utilizing some technology to potentially get people on the same wavelength and synchronize their brains in a way that promotes trust and cooperation.
You mentioned eye contact, which is one thing COVID-19 has disrupted. How can you replicate eye contact and other things like that with Zoom and video calls?
Yes, the movement to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, I think, how important face-to-face communication is. And it can really be challenging when doing so online because of just some of the features of the technology in which there is, for example, an offset between where the camera is on your computer and where the screen is, which makes it very difficult to make eye contact with someone you’re talking to. That’s compounded when there are multiple different faces on the screen in a Zoom or BlueJeans kind of “Brady Bunch” window.
So that’s a challenge. I think that things we can try to do to overcome that is to be aware of where the camera is, and when you’re saying something that’s really important, try to look into the camera. I think another strategy is to recognize that Zoom fatigue is real because it’s so challenging to try to read all of the social cues that we’re seeing on the people who are on the screen. And so it’s important to build in time between meetings — and in some cases, even turn off the video and just go for a pure audio call. That can potentially give you a little bit of rest from all the hard work of trying to decipher what’s going on, on video.
What’s one lesson that you hope readers take away from the book?
I think one really important lesson is that the so-called “irrational biases” that we see in the kinds of decisions that we make — whether they’re the decisions leaders make, or our employees or our customers — they’re actually the result of fundamental processes in our brains that are deeply baked in and difficult to overcome. And so we should not beat ourselves up about it, but rather rely on some of the techniques that neuroscientists suggest that can help us get around some of those challenges.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior editor of Wharton School Press.