Neuroscience and Rural Leadership

Published – 28 February 2022 By Cynthia Mahoney, Gavin Beever

What are the behaviours you admire in your rural leaders and that you want to see more of? What behaviours don’t you like seeing and think need to be eliminated from the tool kits of rural leaders?

These are the questions that leadership facilitator, coach and author Cynthia Mahoney put out to her network as part of her research for her book, “Cultivate: how neuroscience and well-being support rural leaders to thrive”.

Cynthia proposes that in upskilling rural leaders in the basics of neuroscience (the study of how our brains react in certain conditions) and positive psychology, it helps get the best out of people and creates environments where people can flourish.

“As a leader, having a basic understanding of how to create brain-friendly environments where people can thrive, is the latest leadership power skill.” – Cynthia Mahoney

Behaviours that respondents wanted to see more of from rural leaders included that they are:

  • authentic, accountable, generous, courageous, welcome of diversity
  • they don’t need to be perfect or right
  • accept feedback gracefully, look for solutions, collaborate, trust their team, value well-being
  • allow people to make mistakes, open to change, walk the walk and talk the talk
  • build people up, include and encourage others, are humble, and open doors for others.
Understanding neuroscience and the principles of positive phycology and well-being, supports rural leaders to thrive

The behaviours that people didn’t want to see or experience were leaders who:

  • evaded responsibility and accountability, big egos, an attitude of ‘my way or the highway’
  • blaming, shaming and punishing others
  • not supportive of flexible work or work life balance
  • tolerant of burnout cultures, dominating, need to be right
  • undermine others, self-interested, sometimes they’re sexist and/or racist
  • they say all the right things, but they don’t do them
  • undermine the confidence of others
  • are combative, create cultures of secrecy, and are not open.

Interestingly the behaviours that people wanted to see more of, which Cynthia has called ‘Cultivating leadership behaviours’, closely mirrors those that the latest neuroscience says put our brains in a state where we can perform at our best. In this brain-friendly state the lens through which we view and experience the world is open wide, we are creative, innovative, connect with others, we can reason, problem-solve, persevere, and think clearly.

The behaviours people wanted their rural leaders to eliminate are behaviours that the neuroscience says put our brain in threat or survival mode (“fight, flight, freeze or appease”) where we are unable to perform at our best. If you’re a leader looking for results, quality, efficiency, effectiveness, innovation, and outcomes, then leading with such behaviours will actually undermine what you’re trying to achieve.

When we feel unsafe, our brains are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol and parts of our brain shut down. Our lens to the world narrows, we only think of our survival, we can’t listen to or connect with others, we can’t retain new, or call up old information.

The latest scientific research has found that happier people are higher-performing, so as a modern leader it is imperative to add a basic understanding of how our brains work to your leadership tool kit, so you know which behaviours to avoid and which to do more of.

The Research shows:  Happier people are higher performing

Cynthia proposes the three essential elements for leaders to focus on to increase their effectiveness are:

  • Being able to cultivate yourself

  • How to be a leader who cultivates others

  • How to influence and create cultivated cultures rather than cultures of burnout.

For more information

‘Cultivate: how neuroscience and well-being support rural leaders to thrive’