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Mirror Neurons and Neuroleadership

If you take a closer look, this is not just an ordinary picture of two credible leaders. David Cameron's facial expressions and body language reflect the seriousness of Obama's. They both look almost identical - it seems they are experiencing the same emotions while communicating!

Barack Obama (L) David Cameron ®

But why is this happening?

Cameron is mirroring Obama because their brain circuitry is making them experience a "shared reality".

What are mirror neurons?

Mirror Neurons instantly create a shared experience by mimicking the emotions of the other person whenever a person detects an emotion -

1. a mirror neuron is in a resting state (no electrical signals)

2. the animal acts --> a mirror neuron is fired (eg. the animal executes a grasping motion on the ball)

3. when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal, the mirror neuron fires

FUN FACT: It is also often said that a smile is contagious -- this can also be explained by the mirror neurons rationale! Observing another person smile can trigger a mirror neuron of another person to imitate this behaviour as well. So remember to smile more!

The discovery of mirror neurons

In the 1980s, a group of Italian researchers led by Giacomo Rizzolatti were testing ways in which neurons fired when macaque monkeys grabbed for peanuts.

  1. electrodes were placed in the parts of the monkey's brain associated with social understanding and responses

  2. a researcher walked into the room and picked up a peanut in front of the monkey (who was hooked up to the imaging equipment)

  3. the exact same neuron that fired when the monkey picked up a peanut on its own fired (and in the exact same way).

This has led to the theory of mirror neurons, and that these neurons cannot tell the difference between an action their own body makes and an action they observe someone else making

What do mirror neurons allow us to do?

  • mirror neurons allow us to learn through imitation

  • they enable us to reflect body language, facial expressions and emotions → important for social life

  • they enable empathy through vicarious experiences (the ability to observe another and feel their emotions)

  • they are key for child development, relationships and education


Studies have shown that people who are more empathic have stronger activations both in the mirror system for hand actions and the mirror system for emotions, providing more direct support for the idea that the mirror system is linked to empathy.


This concept of mirror neurons emerged from Neuroleadership > makes use of brain imaging and applies neuroscience in the field of leadership

  • allows us to "see" leaders' emotions by mapping their brain activity in contrast to observing the behavioural manifestations of emotions or self-reports which might not be accurate predictors

  • an effective leader is successfully able to establish rapport with his/her followers

  • social neuroscience emphasises the need for a leader to be socially intelligent and achieving an optimal level of self-mastery

  • findings from neuroleadership imply leadership development must include intangible traits such as empathy, adaptability, conflict management style etc.

  • an effective leader must be able to read prevalent social norms of his/her follower group, pay attention to his/her followers' emotional needs and communicate an idea with conviction, relatability & persuasion


(observational learning/not used in this research:

Rizzolatti et al. 2001

Goleman, D., & Boyatzis, R. (2008). Social intelligence and the biology of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 86(9), 74-81

Ringleb, A.H., Rock D., & Ancona, C. (2015). Neuroleadership in 2014. Neuroleadership Journal, 5, 1-27


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