The Neurobiology of Inspiration - Becoming a Collaborative Leader

4 min read
14 March 2019

The word ‘inspiration’ is almost like an odd colour or a shade that is difficult for people to describe. Many people say they are inspired, but determining what it really means to each of us can be challenging. We know how differently we behave when we are inspired compared to when we are not. The future of work requires inspirational leaders who promote collaboration across the world, between people and organisations, and soon, artificial intelligence.

While the idea of inspiration may be somewhat abstract, in the book Leadership is Upside Down we’ve penned a working definition as part of the i4 Neuroleader Model.

Inspiration refers to the energy, enthusiasm and desire to act because of mental or emotional stimulation. When we are inspired, our positive energy attracts others to us, and the feeling can be shared with others.

True collaboration fuels coordination across the entire planet, where we work with others virtually and discover new paradigms together.1

The Link Between Heart Rate and Emotions

The energy and enthusiasm we feel when we are inspired have a measurable impact on our body and brain. The relationship between heart rate and emotions has long been studied by neuroscientists, and by using biofeedback we can better understand our bodily processes and reactions to increase health and wellbeing.

In the film, Make Me A Leader, Bruce Cryer, former CEO of HeartMath, discusses heart rate patterns and how they influence brain states based on research conducted by the HeartMath Institute.

When we are frustrated or annoyed, our heart rate has an erratic or incoherent pattern. By contrast, when we experience positive feelings, our heart rate is steady and more coherent. Easy to use bio/neurofeedback devices are now available, also, and these measure real-time brain activity, giving us a wealth of information about how our brains function in real-world situations.2

By looking at the brains of inspiring leaders we can better learn how to influence the positive emotions of others through hope and inspiration and minimise feelings of anxiety or fear that may demotivate followers. As technology continues to develop, we will increase our understanding of the brain to improve brain health and be better able to help others develop their leadership capacities even further.

So, What Stops People From Collaborating?

As it becomes clear that collaboration is necessary in the modern workplace, why do some people resist? Neuroscience has a partial answer to this question, by means of the amygdala hijack, part of the primeval limbic brain. As leaders, we seek to strengthen our prefrontal cortex (the rational, decision-making part of the brain), but inevitably, the amygdala activates to warn us of impending doom.

When we have a healthy brain, we can overcome this fight-or-flight mode by assessing the situation instead of jumping to the worst case scenario. Uncertainty, powerlessness and the idea of losing status may cause the amygdala to respond as if we were facing a life-and-death situation.

Our brains simply haven’t had enough time to evolve since the days where large carnivores roamed. This response is intended to keep us alive, but in the modern world, it means that our amygdala can become hijacked and push our brains back into survival mode, even when there is no real threat present.3

I didn’t do it, my amygdala did.

Dr Joseph LeDoux, Author and Neuroscientist

Moving Into the Future of Work With AI

For some, the idea of artificial intelligence in the workplace evokes a strong amygdala response--one of fear. The idea that a robot or machine could take human jobs is frightening to many, but this reality is already here. Instead of being afraid of AI, we should look to this technology to enhance, but not replace, human culture.

One could argue that the rise of machines has always had an impact on the workforce. 60% of the US workforce in 1850 worked in agriculture but by 1970 it was less than 5%. Some countries, such as China, have seen even faster shifts. Agricultural jobs declined more than 30% from 1990 to 2015.4

As AI technology continues to improve, it’s inevitable that robots will perform more and more tasks. But, many scientists believe that AI will create more jobs than it replaces, leading to a surge in new positions requiring various skills and management levels.5

Organisations and leaders who embrace AI and see it as a potential tool to work with us (not replace us), will set the tone for the future. Leaders who are inspired by technology, and not fearful or threatened, will set the tone for collaboration across the globe. The time is now to retrain your brain to resist the amygdala hijack, and instead, see the potential uses for AI and how collaboration will fuel changes we cannot yet even imagine.

You can become a more inspiring leader, someone who is open to change and who welcomes diverse ideas and knowledge. To learn more about increasing collaboration and preventing the amygdala hijack in your brain check out our award-winning leadership development programs and educational documentary!

Read Related Article:
What Stops People From Collaborating?


  1. Damiano S, Cubeiro JC, de Haas T. Leadership is Upside Down: The i4 Neuroleader Revolution. About my Brain Institute. 2014.
  2. Make Me A Leader [documentary]. Australia: About my Brain Institute; 2018.
  3. McLennan K. Building Leaders for the Imagination Age: The Case for the i4 Model.  About my Brain Institute. 2016;1. [White Paper].
  4. McKinsey Global Institute. Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation. McKinsey & Company. 2017.
  5. Boulton C. AI in the workplace: Paving the way for man-machine collaboration. IDG Communications, Inc. 2018.

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