Notes from the Field

Notes from the Field / June 2010

NeuroLeadership Summit

Los Angeles,CA, USA from 27th-29th October 2009

by Galina Knopman

I eagerly downloaded the conference schedule, reading the topics and speakers’ bios, and checking off which talks I wanted to attend. I checked my stack of books beside my bed and re-prioritized what to read in preparation for the conference. I got my last-minute reading in on the cross-country flight. I was excited and ready.

I imagined what it would be like to “hang” with fellow thinkers, others like me who think about how people think and behave, about what goes on in our brains. Would it be dry and boring, or passionate and exciting? What would the people who study how we think be like?

I am new to the field of Neuroscience of Leadership but not new to conferences. I didn’t know what this conference would be like but I did have a baseline to compare it to. I’ve been attending, presenting at, and representing my company with a booth at IT Process conferences for the past 28 years. Would this be similar? Would I be disappointed?

It was a small, intimate conference but was managed like they had years of experience. If there were logistical issues, I couldn’t tell. Events started and ended on time, with monitors and proctors to ensure microphones and hand-outs were passed around as needed. There were plenty of supplies (and candy to treat ourselves with.) The size of the rooms fit the venue, and the room temperatures were fine: I didn’t freeze in one and sweat-off ten pounds of water weight in another. I could see and hear the speaker and didn’t have to sit in the first row–that might sound silly but if you’re short like me, you know what I mean!

The talks and panel sessions were at a comfortable level of complexity for me. They were interesting without being confusing, and understandable without being simplistic. The hard quantitative science was applied to leadership topics in a thoughtful and practical way.

The presenters were a wonderful mix of leaders in the NeuroLeadership industry, ranging from neuroscientists to psychiatrists to coaches. To name just a few, there was Matt Lieberman (founder of social cognitive neuroscience,) Dan Siegel (psychiatrist and co-director of UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center,) Warren Bennis (Leadership guru,) Marco Iacoboni (leading mirror neuron researcher) and Jonah Lehrer (author of How We Decide.), to name just a few. There was Q&A at the end of each panel discussion or lecture and the speakers stayed afterwards and dialoged with conference attendees. I had the opportunity to informally discuss questions with the presenters; Everyone was very approachable and respectful. It was a low-key, relaxed atmosphere.

Naomi Eisenberger, a leading social neuroscience researcher, described that we feel emotional pain as much as we feel physical pain. The same place in our brain processes emotional pain every bit as intensely as physical pain. At the conclusion of her talk there was audience discussion regarding how society recognizes (or doesn’t) emotional pain. I viewed myself as a great listener until I went to chat with Mark Goulston, panel session presenter, terrorist negotiator, and author of the book Just Listen. When he signed my book and I kept talking over him – youch!

Lunches and breaks were informal yet there were always opportunities set up by the conference organizers for discussion groups if we wanted. People from all over the world attended the conference, excited about the application of Neuroscience to fields ranging from law, psychology, coaching, and education. I had some wonderful conversations with attendees about the conference topics and heard some fascinating stories about what drew others to the Neuroscience of Leadership.

The book room at the conference had several books that I had been meaning to buy, including David Rock’s new book, Your Brain At Work. I found this work to be wonderfully approachable and usable; I recommend it to my coaching and consulting clients, and apply its concepts myself. I particularly use the book’s SCARF model, which I highly recommend. Many of the authors were also speakers at the conference and were happy to sign their books and chat with me. I have found each book to be more meaningful and interesting to me because I heard the author directly and chatted with them. It was personal.

I journaled each night of the conference and during the whole flight home. Each topic or line of thinking was teased into new possibilities at each of the lectures, lunchtime discussions, conversations between lectures, and talks at the bar over new drinks that I had never tried before. Everything was enhanced, even as trivial as a drink, because of the potential of the possibilities. This potential excited and aroused my brain and my whole being into new ways of thinking.

I was subsequently able to apply to my work all my new thinking and learning from the lectures, panel sessions and discussions of concrete, applied quantitative neuroscience. I started tentatively, then with new confidence as my clients embraced the new concepts and this new learning started to take traction.

The results of the conference were reflected in my subsequent coaching sessions, where I asked new questions and shared my new knowledge, and in my facilitated workshops where I teach what I learned. I continue to refine it. I have newly-found patience with my process clients, and can draw from neuroscience to share how we are motivated to change when working with them to change their companies.

I have looked on the NeuroLeadership Institute’s website for the line-up for this October’s Summit. The topic is “Rethinking Leadership,” which I gather means lots of new neuroscience and applications to be shared, so I had better make room for a new stack of books next to my bed. I did a good job picking which sessions to go to last year, so I’ll stick with that formula and get my brain ready for new challenges to my thinking.

The research and applications that were shared at the Summit confirmed my belief system, my basic value system, my path in life and the work that I do. I am not mad because I think of these things and make these connections. In fact, I have a responsibility to learn and understand the work that has been done in neuroscience and apply those insights to leadership and other disciplines. Was I Alice and the conference my rabbit hole? Perhaps, and I and the world are better for it.

About the Author

Galina Knopman has twenty-eight years of Leadership and Life Coaching, management consulting, team facilitation, systems and software engineering, process improvement, training, and appraisal experience. The President of Comskil, Inc., since 1997, she is certified by the International Coach Federation (ICF) as a CMMI Appraisal Lead and Instructor from the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Melon University. Ms. Knopman conducted more CMMI appraisals worldwide than all but one other appraisal lead in 2003 and 2004. She has led benchmark teams in training and software engineering with Intel, American Airlines, and AlliedSignal Corporation. Ms. Knopman has participated on the SEI review board for the Software Capability Evaluation (SCE) course, the Software Capability Correspondence Committee, the Integrated Product Development CMM review team, and the System Security CMM Steering Group and Applications Group. Ms. Knopman’s clients include professionals, non-profits, small businesses, large enterprises, government agencies and educational institutions.

Ms. Knopman was voted a top ten speaker at the Software Engineering Process Group Conference 2008, was honorary guest speaker at Brandeis University National Women’s Committee, a guest speaker at the Tech Council MD–Women’s IT Committee, the Mid-Atlantic Woman In Technology and many other conferences and speaking venues. Ms. Knopman also provides pro-bono coaching and facilitation to Smiles On Wings, a nonprofit organization that delivers medical and humanitarian services to underprivileged populations.

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