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The power of ‘brain theft’: Why you should copy others if you want to be a great leader

We are relentlessly told that we should be ‘authentic’ and find our own approach to leading. The idea of emulation is almost frowned upon. But while many people will say that you need to create your own style, not copy others, the neuroscience of performance has produced some very different answers.

In any domain where excellence is achieved, the habits, behaviours, and most importantly brain patterns, of those who are world-class look more like each other than they look like others selected at random from the same field. That’s why they are world class. You might think that Serena Williams or Roger Federer have different ways of playing tennis, but those differences are actually very superficial. In the ways that actually make them successful, their brain patterns are much more like each other’s than they are like those who’ve never cracked the top 100.

The question is more complex if you are looking at the nebulous concept of ‘leadership’ rather than the simpler one of ‘tennis’. It becomes much easier though, if we are clear on what capabilities are of importance.

The massive advances in neuroscience in the last decade show us that for the capabilities most pivotal for business success (such as empathy, creativity and resilience), common neural pathways can be mapped. The mapping is improving every year – or in some cases, almost every month. We have an ever-better picture of what happens in the brain of those who demonstrate a capability to a world-class standard. And even more importantly, we see that as the rest of us get better at that capability, our brain starts to look more like those who are world-class.

What this means for the entrepreneur

Let’s apply this thinking to one sub-type of leader: the entrepreneur. If you want to be a better entrepreneur, should you learn from the world’s best entrepreneurs – the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos? Absolutely. It makes just as much sense as studying how Samantha Kerr plays soccer or Magnus Carlsen plays chess. The reason that the likes of Musk and Bezos have succeeded is precisely because they do things in ways that are best suited to succeeding as an entrepreneur. Should you emulate them? I would say, why stop at emulation, go ahead and copy them!

So which brain patterns are shared by the world’s best entrepreneurs? There are a few, but an important one appears to be how they frame risk. They embrace the outsider in themselves and engage in proactive, calculated risk-taking based on this maverick identity. If you can develop this approach – or even better, nurture it because you’re already somewhat inclined in this direction – that may suit you well.

However, does this mean you should adopt everything about these paragons? For example, should you also mimic their style?

No. The style aspects are typically superfluous. If your hero is an extrovert and you are in introvert, don’t try to change yourself. If your hero is known for losing their temper, and you are cool and collected, don’t go changing. These are aspects of who they are but don’t explain their success, any more than you need to tug at your shorts while serving and speak in broken English to play like Nadal, or do somersaults after scoring to play like Kerr. What you need to focus on are the brain patterns that cause their success.

You should also make sure that what you are emulating is right for the stage your business is at. There are things that Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos do now that are possible because of the wealth they’ve accumulated and even more importantly, the halo effect that surrounds them (which causes other wealthy people to support them), which they couldn’t and wouldn’t have done when starting out. Don’t try to be who they are today. Try to do what they did when they were at your stage that served them best. And remember: focus on what worked in terms of their practices and routines, not their personality.

In this sense, authenticity is still the way to go. Copying the brain patterns of the world’s best is not a crime, because it will never mean that you stop being you. If you think about it, that’s just what Musk and Bezos have done too. At one level, they are exactly like all the other great entrepreneurs of history – their brains work in incredibly similar ways. Yet at the same time, they are remarkable individuals whose unique imprint on business history sets them apart from all others.

And you can be exactly the same. You can be humble enough to realise that the best way to become world-class in your areas of ambition is to steal mercilessly. And yet, in that process of shameless theft, your copied brain patterns will merge with those you already possessed, alchemically creating something greater and more distinctive than both.

So don’t shy away from brain theft – embrace it.

About the author

Anthony Mitchell is the co-founder and Chief Potential Officer of Bendelta, focusing on designing organisations and leaders for the cyber-physical age. As part of his commitment to developing human potential, he is Chairman of the Aurora Education Foundation, providing accelerated development opportunities for Australia’s most promising Indigenous scholars, and a member of the Amnesty International 2020 Council, focused on defending the rights of those whose human potential is most in jeopardy.

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Anthony Mitchell

Anthony Mitchell

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