Insights on Neuroscience and Servant Leadership – Interview with Charles Caldwell Pt 2

Neuroscience

Recently we published a post from an interview with Charles Caldwell, Director of Human Resources for the Hong Kong English Schools Foundation. The topic of that interview was managing change. Today I continue my discussion with Charles with a focus on neuroscience and the role of servant leadership in the modern organisation.


I enjoyed hearing about the model Charles describes with it breaking from the traditional hierarchy model and humanizing leaders and the teams working with them. Charles explained that in within a ‘top down’ model, fear and threat dominate over opportunity which brings defence mechanisms into play. This in turn shuts down creativity and the types of thinking more aligned with problem solving and opportunity.

The discussion doesn’t focus just on theory as Charles includes some very real examples that most leaders would come across regularly in their work.

My notes on the discussion are provided below and you can listen to the interview here.


Download mp3.



  • Studies in neuroscience have found the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is active when one practices mindfulness, peace and positive emotions. The PNS is like the radiator which regulates the temperature of everything in the car. The PNS is like a regulater for your state of mind.
  • The practice of serving others in a mindful way, is the ultimate form of activating the PNS.
  •  Most of us in the workforce, and millennials in particular, embrace corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities because the PNS is activated when serving others. The ultimate victory is when we are both giving and receiving as it is a ‘two way’ endorphin release.• The best way to stimulate and generate PNS within an organisation is by practicing a type of leadership that is collaborative, authentic, engaging and what some would call ‘servant’leadership, where leaders looking after the interests of others.
  • Data on ‘servant’ leadership models support its effectiveness over ‘top down’ leadership.
  • When a manager or leader becomes an ambassador for an employee and serves them by supporting their knowledge, skill or career advancement, this is what it means to be a ‘servant leader.’
  • While it doesn’t mean ‘bowing down’ in the traditional sense of the word servant, it can mean helping to engage with team members as if on the same level. Making coffee, baking a cake for the team, and adding personal interactions provides relief from the transactional aspects of management or leadership.
  • Servant leadership is also about using a coaching model approach - giving team members the opportunity to empower themselves by resolving issues independently. Rather than the use of authority to resolve an issue, a servant leader can give employees a choice to develop skills enabling them to resolve the issue for themselves.
  • Leaders are well placed to ‘mine for the gold,’ meaning to look for the opportunities in circumstances. For example, underlying any form of upset or conflict is a form of commitment for both sides. Understanding the commitment of the other party removes emotion from the situation and paves the way for alignment of commitments.
  • We process ‘threat’ stimulus five times faster than we do for opportunity. We’ll avoid a sabre toothed tiger before having a banana. The moment one gets into a conflict the default interpretation from a scientific point of view is going to be fear and threat, even when there isn’t a real threat present.
  • To resolve this, take a breath and sit up straight. This gives relief to the vagus nerve which runs from the back of brain to the stomach. This is where gut instinct is felt. Leaders can recognise when team members are ‘in a slump’ and invite them to stand up and move around to assist resolution discussions.
  • The most effective organisations are introducing neuroscientific insights as a way to supplement leadership programs.
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About the Author

Catherine Gillespie brings a wealth of skill to her clients. With particular expertise in teaching communication and workplace conflict resolution skills, Catherine has made a marked difference to the organisations she has worked with. She empowers teams and managers to adopt constructive styles that support harmony, productivity and progress in the workplace.