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Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute: “Look after each other”

Look after each other It is so critical that leaders pay a lot of attention to their people’s mental well being, and support their people every way they can. This is one of the toughest times of their life for many folks. Leaders need to have a lot of empathy and really listen, and help people […]

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Look after each other

It is so critical that leaders pay a lot of attention to their people’s mental well being, and support their people every way they can. This is one of the toughest times of their life for many folks. Leaders need to have a lot of empathy and really listen, and help people find what they can control and to take control of those things. Show you care, every way you can.


As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. David Rock, Co-founder & Chief Executive Officer NeuroLeadership Institute.

Dr. David Rock coined the term ‘Neuroleadership’ and is the Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global initiative bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together to build a new science for leadership development. With operations in 24 countries, the Institute also helps large organizations operationalize brain research in order to develop better leaders and managers.

David co-edits the NeuroLeadership Journal and heads up an annual global summit. He has authored many of the central academic papers that have defined the Neuroleadership field, and presents this research at prestigious leadership conferences around the world each year. In 2015, he presented at the White House as part of a thought leader series hosted by the Office of Personnel Management.

David is the author of the business best seller Your Brain at Work (Harper Business, 2009), as well as Quiet Leadership (Harper Collins, 2006), and the textbook Coaching with the Brain in Mind (Wiley & Sons, 2009). He blogs for the Harvard Business Review, Fortune Magazine, Psychology Today, and the Huffington Post. He is quoted widely in the media about leadership, organizational effectiveness, and the brain.

Academically, David is on the faculty and advisory board of CIMBA, an international business school based in Europe, and is a guest lecturer at many universities including Oxford University’s Said Business School. He is on the board of the BlueSchool, an initiative in New York City building a new approach to education. He received his professional doctorate in the Neuroscience of Leadership from Middlesex University in 2010.


Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I am originally Australian and moved to NYC 10 years ago. In 2007, my partner Lisa Rock and I had been working in leadership development and executive coaching for ten years, when I coined the term “NeuroLeadership.” I realized that bringing a more concrete, science-based approach to improving soft skills would not just resonate with business leaders but also make any learning initiative more effective.

That same year, what would become the organization I now serve as CEO for, the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI), ran its first Summit in Asolo, Italy, where we brought business practitioners and brain scientists together. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. We’ve now held Summits across the world, from London to Sydney, from San Francisco to DC. I, and NLI, now call New York City home.

In 2008, we also launched the NeuroLeadership Journal. In its first few years, we published the foundational papers in the field, including the first paper on the SCARF ® Model. We initially provided executive education, and then soon started to consult with firms based on demand, eventually helping launch a movement to do performance management without formal ratings.

After two and a half years of research, we launched the SEEDS Model ® in 2015, and a diversity and inclusion (D&I) practice was born. Soon after, we launched a leadership practice, initially working with tech giants Intel, Microsoft, and IBM. We’ve also gained deep expertise in growth mindset and helped many organizations transform culture.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I’m not sure it is very funny, but in the first 4 years of the business, after growth and success, we hired a management team and took a step back to focus on having kids. We nearly lost everything in that year, and had to shrink the business from 25 people in a big beautiful office to 2 people in our spare bedroom. We paid back 500k dollars in losses and found our way back in about 18 months. Not funny, but certainly changed our relationship to managing costs.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

The business started from the beginning with my partner Lisa Rock and I developing everything. We’ve been together on the journey for over 20 years now, and I couldn’t have done much of anything without her. I’m eternally grateful for her partnership and belief in my sometimes crazy ideas.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

Our vision and mission has evolved a lot over 21 years, though it has always centered on helping individuals and organizations be more effective. These days, and for some years, NLI’s mission is to make organizations more human through science. We do this by distilling neuroscience into accessible, actionable strategies for change, then helping organizations apply these changes globally. The result is smarter organizations with more adaptive, resilient, and inclusive leaders at all levels.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

Our research shows that the critical factor is to take care of your mental health, so that you can think clearly. The irony of a crisis is you need to be more creative, and think more deeply, than any other time, and yet the crisis makes it incredibly hard to do that.

In early March 2020, as I was seeing the panic in my own and other people’s eyes, I realized I would have to massively lean in, to help everyone through this. I started working crazy hours, 7 days a week, to stay on top of transforming the business. At the start, we saw clients vanish and our whole industry potentially disappear, or so it felt at the time. We realized we needed to innovate fast, and I needed to lead from the front and create as much clarity as I could about our strategy and how to get there. I developed an 8 point plan to shift the business, and stayed very focused on this, and it worked. We ended up radically shifting our marketing efforts fast, where we started to talk to six times as many potential clients every week, through leveraging the online world. In the end, 2020 was our best year yet, but for many of our competitors it was their worst. I put this down to our strategy, our people’s efforts, as well as having foresight years ago that virtual learning would one day become big. It just happened about 5 years sooner than we expected.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

The biggest driver for me is literally our vision — making organizations better for humans through science. There are so many inaccurate theories out there driving people strategies, and we want to change these for the better. The results change lives. I guess in the end I am driven to make the world a little better, using the skills I have honed, which involves synthesizing complex science to help people apply better strategies day to day.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Leaders play a crucial role-modeling function within teams and organizations — we tend to view them as the prototype for the culture, and that means that leaders’ habits are contagious. They radiate out and set the norms in their teams and across the organization. Small shifts in your behaviour as a leader can create big waves for your organization. That’s incredibly important to consider when we fall on our hard times. People look to leaders for direction, and emulate their example. So it’s important for leaders to display habits of resilience, of empathy, and of transparency.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team? .

The future is inherently unpredictable, which makes thinking about it quite uncomfortable at times. That’s because the human brain craves certainty, and threats to our sense of certainty register as actual pain in the brain. When employees and shareholders ask questions — they expect leaders to have the answers, to provide certainty. In turn, leaders expect it of themselves.

But, leaders should focus not on certainty, but clarity. This is a concept Bob Johansen, a leading futurist and friend of the firm, has shared. Essentially, our agility in the future rests on values. Organizations can adapt quickly to challenges when leaders align to the purpose of that organization. When we give people clarity, we help them see the connection between what they do and why they do it, which compels them to act.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

At NLI, we talk often about threat and reward as the brain’s organizing principles. To that end, we use a model called SCARF® — which stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness — to understand how social threat and reward can be understood and influenced. Any communication, but especially difficult ones, should send “positive SCARF® signals” in each domain, but three in particular: certainty, autonomy, and relatedness. Anything you tell your team or customers should serve one of those three goals, and ideally some combination of all three. Communicate about what you know, what you don’t know, and what you are trying to figure out. Offer people autonomy by providing choices where possible, for instance giving people more control over their schedule to adapt to new circumstances. And make the communication human; live and on-camera if possible, to create a sense of relatedness.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

The problem with predicting the future is not that we don’t know what will happen, but that we don’t know what will happen next. In working with Bob Johansen, I’ve come to understand and espouse that, as Bob says, “thinking present-forward is simply unreliable.” The present is a noisy place — full of news, alerts, reactions, counterreactions, spikes, and bubbles. All that noise makes it hard to distinguish the truly valuable insights from all the chatter — like trying to answer a cell phone in a crowded room. What you need to do is turn down the noise of the present so you can sense the quiet signals. The key to better predictions is to look further ahead, and work back from there. In other words, don’t think Now, Next, Future — think Now, Future, Next. Try to make the 10-year forecast before you make the 1-year forecast This type of thinking helps leaders pick up on and follow larger trends, not chase down short-term fads. The future is undoubtedly uncertain, but you can still find clarity and tremendous value by looking long.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Right now, we all need to strike the right adaptive mindset. That means not over- or under-reacting to present conditions. We need to find a way to balance realism with optimism. This concept is known as the Stockdale Paradox, and it holds key lessons into how we should approach these turbulent times. The paradox was popularized by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. Collins used the example of James Stockdale, the United States Navy Vice Admiral and aviator awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War. Stockdale was a prisoner of war for over seven years in one of the most infamous prison camps of the war and survived the ordeal when many others did not. Stockdale explained the major insight that sustained him by saying, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” In essence, we have to acknowledge the brutal reality that we’re facing, grounding ourselves in hardship, but at the same time, we need to maintain some level of optimism that eventually, but not as soon as we’d like, we’ll make it through.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Particularly over 2020, leaders often worked till they dropped, running on adrenaline, instead of taking care of themselves better. Being able to think deeply is critical in a crisis, and that’s impossible when your heart rate is way up, as happens when you’re really pushing yourself. The best leaders worked harder than ever on staying mentally calm and well, by developing personal practices around exercise, sleep, meditation, etc.

Second, many leaders in a crisis double down on pushing their people. That can work in a ‘sprint’ situation, but 2020 was a marathon of marathons. Instead, the best leaders worked extra hard to make sure their people really felt taken care of.

Finally, the best leaders didn’t try to do everything they used to do, They focused on what was essential and stripped away other activities, even when that felt uncomfortable.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

The key here is to let go of the thought ‘it’s hard, because everything is not how it was’. And instead let go of how things were, and see the world freshly. Start with a blank slate, with a growth mindset, and re-imagine everything. Developing products, finding customers, selling, delivering, everything. But do it all as if this new world is here for good, rather than imagining that this challenging time will quickly pass and we will go back to normal. To really innovate, you have to let go of the past and start fresh. Over the first half of 2020, we radically accelerated our product development, shaving months off our process, and radically improved our customer interactions, by literally talking to hundreds of customers each week about what they wanted. We were able to do this because we saw the strengths in how the world was now (people wanted to connect meaningfully with peers) versus complaining about not being to meet in person. We ended up set up many different weekly customer groups online, which helped us both adapt and sell radically faster. We could do this because our people were used to experimenting rapidly. It’s been a part of our culture for a long time, and it’s also something we teach.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Be quietly optimistic, but also realistic. This is the ‘stockdale paradox’. Imagine that things will work out eventually for the best, but that it will be really difficult until then, and then get to work to make things even a little better.
  2. Take care of yourself. Leaders need to find novel solutions to really difficult problems. This requires deep thinking and creative breakthroughs, both of which are inhibited by moderate levels of stress. Plus, as a leader, people take on your stress levels and it adds to theirs. In short, get very intentional about managing your own stress levels, preferably ahead of time with the right buffers, so that ideally you are calm and neutral or even quietly optimistic.
  3. 3. Look after each other. It is so critical that leaders pay a lot of attention to their people’s mental well being, and support their people every way they can. This is one of the toughest times of their life for many folks. Leaders need to have a lot of empathy and really listen, and help people find what they can control and to take control of those things. Show you care, every way you can.
  4. 4. Deliver what matters. It can be hard to let go of the dozens of cool projects you had going pre-crisis. Let them go. And identify just the top three things that really matter. And then obsess about just those things. Everyone will really appreciate you for this.

With a nod to point four above, I am going give you four points not five.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I think my favorite quote is: “We often think about what is easy to think about, rather than what’s right to think about.” It reminds me that we need to hard things, rather than just easy things, to really have an impact in the world. I guess this spurred me to think deeply and try to unpack things I didn’t understand, which brought me to the whole world of neuroscience.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Google “Your Brain at Work” and you’ll likely end up on our blog, listening to our podcast, attending one of our weekly webinars, or reading my book. Those are all good ways to learn more about the neuroscience of leadership. Or you can follow NLI’s LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Instagram accounts to stay up to date on our latest work.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!


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