Guiding the human consciousness requires specific leadership qualities

Neurosafety: A leadership journey

Was there a toolbox talk? Yes, tick. Was there a time allocated to safety? Yes, tick. Did it make any difference? Absolutely not! So, if we are honest, how much that is done in the name of safety is a waste of time?

The demand for mass production during the Industrial Revolution brought about greater efficiency in organisational processes. Improved methods of producing goods were required to maximise productivity, reduce costs and increase profitability. Business owners started to rely on managers to coordinate and optimise production.

This strategy soon spilled over to trying to manage people, as one of the ways to increase production is to improve worker performance. However, while systems, processes and budgets can be managed; people do not respond that well to being managed.

Things can be controlled, but people need to be led. This awareness led to the dawn of our modern-day concept of leadership.

Conventional Leadership

Extensive research has been undertaken to try to determine what constitutes a model leader. In spite of all the studies, there are considerable gaps in our understanding of leadership.

Currently, there are over 100 definitions of leadership and if you Google the word leader, you get over 300 000 hits. More than 100 000 books on leadership are listed on alone. However, the notion of leadership remains quite elusive. We are still unsure whether to focus on leadership traits, behaviours, styles or competencies.

In our inability to define the ideal leader, most people in positions of authority have defaulted to what works for them. This quandary is amplified by the fact that countless people are promoted into leadership positions because of their technical acumen. The reality is that the skills needed to be, for example, an artisan, shop steward, or engineer are entirely different to those of a capable leader.

The expertise to manage a business is not the same as technical proficiency, and, at times, is contrary to the aptitude needed to lead people. As a result, the quality of leadership in many organisations is rather low.

Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report revealed that 85 percent of employees are either not engaged in, or are actively disengaged from, their work. This equated to approximately seven trillion dollars in lost productivity. The ramifications for safety are just as serious.

The good news is Gallup’s research found that companies with high employee engagement had a 78-percent higher success rate in their safety figures than those with low engagement. Having effective leaders is, therefore, not a “nice to have”, but rather an outright necessity.


Fortunately, advances in the field of neuroscience are helping to connect the dots between human interaction and successful leadership practices. More than ever before, we have a better grasp into how the neural connections in the brain impact behaviour.

The recent discoveries in neuroscience are playing a significant role in reshaping how we define, select and develop competent leaders.

Tobias Kiefer, global learning leader at EY, said: “The art of synchronising the science of the brain with leadership behaviours offers the best hope for effecting real change in a leader and within an organisation. That is because understanding neuro-leadership provides insight to the impact that our emotions and behaviours – and the behaviours of those around us – have on our success and failure.”

Neuro-leadership empowers leaders with insight into how the brain works. Being aware of what drives human behaviour – based on a few fundamental “brain rules” – places leaders in the driver’s seat. Instead of working against the brain’s natural processes, this new knowledge enables leaders to influence their teams far more effectively.

The conscious brain

We have a small conscious capacity. According to neuroscientist Dr Joseph Dispenza, every second the brain processes around 400-billion bits of information. Of those 400-billion bits, the conscious mind uses only 2 000 bits to make us aware of what is happening around us.

Despite popular belief, it is impossible to multi-task consciously. Our conscious mind is similar to a torch. It can focus on only one place at one time. You cannot scatter its beam.

This means that it is very easy for us to fail to see a lot of what is happening around us. While I am focused on one task, it is natural to miss a potential hazard behind me. This is not an issue of attitude or intelligence; it is an inherent limitation of the conscious brain.

It is common to hear that people can look directly at something, but do not register or “see” it. This is because their mind is focused on something else.

Knowing this, leaders should continue to encourage their teams to undertake quality risk assessments, actively pay attention during toolbox talks, and pay attention when participating in inspections and walkabouts.

Completing a risk assessment and signing it off is inadequate; being disengaged in a toolbox talk is irresponsible; and being absent minded during a walk-about is not only a waste of time, it is potentially dangerous.

When doing high-risk jobs, or working in hazardous environments, it is critical to be thorough, alert and conscientious. This is far more important than just being legally compliant; it could be life-saving.


Brett Solomon is the CEO of The Kinetic Leadership Institute and is a recognised leader in combining neuroscience, change management and leadership theory to drive cultural transformation processes. Brett specialises in neuro-leadership, especially when it comes to understanding what drives human behaviour and how to influence it. He has been involved in numerous safety culture change initiatives in throughout South Africa, Australia, Canada and Saudi Arabia.

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