3. The Neuroscience of leadership development: The “few minutes” rule

The recent work of David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz in defining and developing what is increasingly being called ‘the neuroscience of leadership‘ gives us a far greater insight than previously into how people learn, change and develop.

These insights are critical in helping us work out the optimal session time and frequency spent on leadership development activity. It was the findings of Rock and Schwartz, and a general awareness of the inadequacy of existing leadership development offerings, that led to the creation of an online community of practice where the aim is to learn from each other how to be better at leadership.

Participants are unlikely to spend more than 15 minutes per session in an online community of practice. Schwartz and Rock‘s findings tell us this is just the right amount of time to optimize learning.

The neuroscience of leadership is based on watching how the brain changes, using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI scanners). Here are some of the insights Schwartz and Rock have provided us with in recent months, through books, articles and webinars. in which they discuss their findings:

Insights or “epiphanies”

The first, critical finding, is on ‘insights’ or ‘epiphanies’, which are central to changing established wiring in the brain, Only recently has neuroscience started studying insight. Jeffrey Schwartz puts it this way: - The findings show that the moment of insight is central to facilitating change. An insight or an epiphany is a sudden spark and the person suddenly sees something. It‘s a specific defined moment that can be seen in the way parts of the brain light up through MRI images, and it can be measured.

There are four phases around insight:

  1. Attention / Awareness
  2. Reflection
  3. Insight
  4. Action

Beyond “transmission” and teaching

Jeffrey Schwartz: “Our management models are based on the premise that knowledge is power. This transmission approach to exchanging information (exemplified by lectures and textbooks, where knowledge is transmitted to a passive receiver) has always been the prevailing teaching method in academia, including the business schools that many managers attend.

“Since many executives assume that the teaching methods they endured are the only teaching methods that work, it‘s no small matter to consider trying a different approach in our workplaces. For many executives, leading others in such a new way may be a bigger change, and therefore challenge, than driving on the other side of the road.”

The attention model

“With an attention model, learning becomes possible through many media, not just in a classroom. Also, given the small capacity of working memory, many small bites of learning, digested over time, may be more efficient than large blocks of time spent in workshops. The key is getting people to pay sufficient attention to new ideas, something the ‘e-learning’ industry has struggled with.”

When asked in a recent webinar what leaders do differently that works in leadership development, David Rock replied:

“Small doses is what it‘s about... To facilitate change you have to get attention on the idea and push other ideas away for that short period of regular time. (ARIA – The Attention, Reflection, Insight, Action model). You have to create a space where people can quietly reflect then stop to take some action (think about it, talk about it, share it). Any change relies on small bites of intense learning followed up regularly by action over time.”

From seminars and programmes to a few minutes per session

“The one-day event is the training paradigm offered by HR departments. That‘s equivalent to trying to grow a garden by watering it for one day a year. Small amounts of attention more regularly is much more efficient than overwhelming the brain. The reason is working memory. We are all familiar with being at a conference and by lunchtime on the second day the brain is full...even on the first day. So, we can re-think how we run training and change programmes and what‘s the most efficient way to drive people‘s attention and certain behaviours.”

David Rock: “If you want to grow a forest pour rain onto it for not too long – ten minutes, half an hour is a long time for attention. Focus it regularly. Studies show that with fifteen minutes of practice once a week you can read something out and have something read to you and understand both after one month (four lots of practice). That‘s an example of the principle that a small amount of attention regularly, once a week minimum, it seems, (delivers change in behaviour)”. Jeffrey Schwartz adds: “Five or ten minutes a day is a lot – it goes a long way.”

The Leadership Hub takes the principles of learning for change, as defined by Schwartz, Rock and others, and applies them to a new online collaborative development environment where the participants commit to spending just a few minutes per session developing their own leadership and the leadership of other participants.


  1. The work of David Rock, Jeffrey Schwartz and others into how the brain processes information, changes to accept or adapt it, and how that is connected with shifts in behaviour. This work suggests regular short high- attention activities are more effective than traditional training.
  2. Quiet Leadership, by David Rock
  3. The Mind and The Brain, by Jeffrey Schwartz
  4. David Rock & Jeffrey Schwartz, talking in a Booz Allen webinar, 2 Nov 2006, on how leaders need to develop through “self-directed neuro-plasticity” i.e. changing their own brains, and how they are resistant to attempts to change their behaviour directed at them from the outside i.e. traditional leadership development training.
  5. The Neuroscience of Leadership, an article by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz in Business+Strategy, available here: strategy-business.com

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