How we can learn to learn with the brain - not against it

January 18, 2019

It's all about neuroleadership

Andy Habermacher is an internationally acclaimed neuroleadership expert who lectures around the world on why it is so important for leaders to listen better to their body’s signals. On May 24, 2019, Andy will visit the WU Executive Academy at a Business Breakfast and a WU EA Lounge in the evening. In an exclusive interview before the event, he gives insights into the latest scientific findings on how executive education should work today and explains why managers should definitely know more about their brains.

Picture of a head with cogwheels
Learn with the brain, not against it. Photo © CC0 Licence

Mr. Habermacher, thanks to brain research, we already know quite a lot about the brain today. What has science been able to reveal?

A lot has happened in this area in recent years. Today we know what role chemicals and molecules play and what types of neurons are important. How the neurons connect with each other and how the individual brain regions interact also makes an impact.

With this in mind, how has the discipline of neuro-leadership developed, in other words, how do you translate this neuroscience research into management practice?

David Rock coined the term neuroleadership in 2004; Daniel Goleman is also one of the leading minds in this field. The aim was to use neuroscience in the field of leadership and management and to show how the brain works in this context. Many times, it confirmed what was already known. However, it is important that science can now explain the underlying mechanisms - the neurosciences are more trusted than psychology. In short: Today it is clearer and more concrete how the processes in the brain work.

So managers should know more about how the brain works?

Yes, but unfortunately it is not as widely known as it should be. Although neuro-leadership has existed for 14 years and many new theories have been scientifically proven, hardly anyone has a clear understanding of the processes in the brain. General leadership tools and psychological trends are still used.

What's the reason for that?

There are several reasons for this. First, the tools are often complex and very scientific. This gives the impression that they are not relevant for business. Secondly, executives are used to the classic management language, for example in the HR environment.

Tools who represent neuro leadership tools
Tools for neuro-leadership are often complex, giving the impression that they are not relevant for business. Photo © CC0 Licence

Could it also be because managers believe that neuro-leadership is just another trend topic?

It is possible that many people think that this is just a trend. Some other people rely completely on it and offer over-simplified solutions. However, it is more than a trend and will become even more important thanks to new academic research.


If we look at education and training: Are we currently learning in a way that corresponds to the findings of the neuroscience?

Only in part. Training courses are often not designed in such a way that they promote brain performance. For example, it is important to understand that learning is a process in which, among other things, there must be enough time for experiments. The duration of learning is also important, more than four to five hours makes little sense. And, of course, sleep is the most important component of efficient learning.

Picture of a alarm clock
For Andy Habermacher sleep is the most important component for efficient learning. Photo © CC0 Licence

Yet a lack of sleep is considered to be a symptom of powerful people.

Fitness, nutrition and above all sufficient sleep are indispensable for the health of the brain. There are exceptions, of course, as Thomas Edison once said that "sleep is a heritage of our cave days" - sleeping only 3 to 4 hours himself. But successful managers have adequate and regular sleep. Winston Churchill was also regarded as someone who slept very little - but what is often forgotten is that he slept for an hour or two in the afternoon.

So with this in mind, how should we design a learning process?

Generally speaking, lifelong learning is indispensable. And it is always better to learn in many small blocks than in a single one. However, this is often not easy to implement in practice. Then the aim is to learn as intensively as possible in a short period of time.

How can each individual optimize learning for himself, do you have any tips?

It is best to start in the morning and learn in blocks of 45 minutes up to one hour. The first thing to do is to fly over the documents, because it is easier for the brain if there is already a recognizable reference. And you should have enough freedom to explore and study. In between the individual learning segments, get up and move, chill or read something else. Have lunch and then rest. In the evening, allow the brain to devote itself to something else.

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