What Effective Leaders Need to Know About Hormones

Leaders who understand some key aspects of neuroscience will be more effective leaders. This is the message in Simon Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last.

Sinek explains that there are four key chemicals that relate to leadership:

  1. Endorphin
  2. Dopamine
  3. Serotonin
  4. Oxytocin

Sinek divides these four neurotransmitters into two separate categories — selfish and selfless

  • Selfish hormones — Endorphin and Dopamine help us get things done and achieve more.
  • Selfless hormones — Serotonin and Oxytocin strengthen our social bonds and create meaningful connections and more effective collaboration.
  1. Endorphin

Endorphins are pain-masking hormones that help us push ourselves through tough circumstances.

We needed endorphins in the Palaeolithic era when out hunting. Enduring harsh climates and rough terrain for hours or days on end to catch a meal, endorphins would mask the pain and allow us to press forward until we caught our prey.

Today, we most often get a rush of endorphins from running called a “Runner’s High” that helps us push our bodies through tough workouts.

This feeling is actually addictive and that’s why you see so many people who are addicted to working out.

In the modern world, effective leaders can obviously provide stretch in their work goals to create a sense of achievement and this endorphin rush.

  1. Dopamine

Dopamine is the most dangerous hormone of the four because it is the most satisfying.

Alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, and even cell phones send dopamine through our body whenever we use them, which is what makes those things so highly addictive.

On a more professional note, even completing tasks, achieving goals, and simply getting things done can give us a rush of dopamine. That’s why crossing items off your to-do list feels so great. If you’ve ever completed a task, realised it wasn’t on your to-do list, added it, then crossed it off, you’ll know this feeling.

Dopamine is what produces that irresistible urge to check every notification on your phone.

Each time we clear the notification, respond to the text, or read an email it gives us a boost in dopamine. Since dopamine makes us feel great, we instinctively do things that give us a quick dopamine fix without considering the value of those things.

Leaders can create a bigger dopamine hit by making goals more tangible. But you may want to consider ways to manage the dopamine addiction by restricting times for sending messages (ie fewer pings on the phone in the evening).

It is important to note that endorphin and dopamine provide short term hits that don’t require contributions from others.

3. Serotonin

Serotonin is the hormone produced when we feel valued, respected and admired.  It boosts our confidence and makes us feel good.

When people see you and respect you as their leader, it boosts your serotonin by making you feel great and it boosts their serotonin because they trust you.

However, leaders who get too high on serotonin and don’t follow through on their responsibilities as a leader lose the trust of the group. Once they’ve lost the trust of the group, their serotonin drops and so does their confidence.

The more that leaders create a safe environment and give team members a sense of pride and status, the more serotonin they will have surging through their body and the more confident they will feel when taking on challenges.

Without trust you’ll have an environment of cynicism and paranoia.

4. Oxytocin

Oxytocin is stimulated when we get feelings from emotional bonds. Unlike endorphin and serotonin, it builds slowly.

Leaders that sit up in their ivory tower, never to be seen by the group and only communicating through emails don’t form this kind of bond with their team.

Effective leaders get out amongst the people to say well done and give people one-on-one time to address their concerns. Being honest helps stimulate oxytocin as does making other people feel heard.

And maybe you’ll get fewer team members going off to rival firms!

An important rival to oxytocin is cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol makes us more selfish and paranoid and restricts our creative thinking. It also reduces our immune system. So if you notice staff getting sick more often, you might needs some actions to enhance levels of serotonin and oxytocin.


Final thought…

Traditional male leaders tend to be better at providing the endorphin and dopamine hits. Females tend to be better at delivering the serotonin and oxytocin responses. It seems like the balance between the two styles might be ideal.

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