New York, New York
David Rock coined the term "neuroleadership" and co-founded the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global initiative bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together to build a new science for leadership development.
He co-edits the NeuroLeadership Journal and is the author of four books, including the 2009 business bestseller Your Brain at Work. Rock also is the founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, a global consulting and training firm with operations in 24 countries.
Academically, Rock is on the faculty and advisory board of Cimba, an international business school based in Europe. He is a guest lecturer at universities in five countries, including Oxford University's Said Business School, and on the board of the BlueSchool, a new educational initiative in New York City. He received his professional doctorate in the neuroscience of leadership from Middlesex University in 2010.
How did you launch your career in learning and organizational development?
It happened about 16 years ago. I'd been doing some executive coaching and wanted to better understand the process of coaching and why and how it works. I started running some training programs with small groups to try to unpack the coaching process, which turned into a formal training solution.
A few years into this process, organizations started coming to us asking, "Can you turn our managers into coaches?" We spent time really exploring coaching from a behavioral perspective and found we were able to improve the quality of coaching conversations significantly, as well as the quality of any conversation.
Every kind of personal, emotional, and complex conversation was benefiting from the insights we developed. Some of our first clients were quite large government organizations (initially in Australia) and, through them, we found that we were able to generate breakthroughs. This became a big part of our business—working with large organizations to improve the quality of conversation. I have now trained about 12,000 executive coaches around the world.
How did the term "neuroleadership" come about, and has it changed much since people first began using it?
It came from something I noticed in about 2003. I had been fascinated by the brain for 20 years and had read everything I could get my hands on. In about 2003, I was in a partnership with New York University, and I started including brain research in the programs they ran. I found it incredibly helpful in allowing people to understand theories around leadership development, change, and coaching more effectively. It gave people greater insight.
I began to interview neuroscientists and started working on a book, which became Your Brain at Work. I started interviewing neuroscientists in detail, spending quite a lot of time with them—going to visit them for several days, reading their papers, interviewing them, and trying to understand the research better. I wanted to gather all the people I'd been interviewing and spending time with, and we held a conference in Europe in 2007. We called it the First NeuroLeadership Summit. In coining this name for the conference, the term stuck. It got picked up by Business Week, Yahoo, and many people, and that's how it started.
Since then, has neuroleadership gone on to encompass more than you originally thought it would?
Yes and no. The trouble with neuroscience research is that there's such an enormous amount of it. There are more than 50,000 neuroscientists publishing studies every year, and these studies often argue with each other. It's an incredibly complex field. Part of the point of neuroleadership is to organize the research into a helpful framework to help make the research helpful and useful.
So we have been focused on trying to organize the field, and we've structured four domains of neuroleadership: the neuroscience of decision making and problem solving, the neuroscience of regulating emotions, the neuroscience of collaborating with others, and the neuroscience of facilitating change. We have continued to develop this over the years, and so far, it has stood the test of time.
We've been able to get all the students who are doing postgraduate work to begin testing out theories and building case studies within that framework. There are a few hundred studies being performed now, and from a variety of perspectives, that all use that framework.
The research is being applied in some really interesting and unexpected places: It is being used in Korea, India, China, and all around the world for improving the quality of classrooms for high school students, the safety of mine workers, the number of insights people have in the boardroom, and workplace engagement. Many applications of the research have started to emerge, and that's been exciting.
What do you think is one major trend in cognitive neuroscience that learning professionals need to be aware of right now?
There are so many. One area that's really interesting is social learning. I think it would be helpful for learning professionals to understand the real reason to embed knowledge in a social context—it's not just about throwing up a social media site or getting people tweeting. There are roughly 70 labs in the United States studying social interactions and how the brain processes the social world.
There's something called "social memory," which turns out to be extremely robust. The whole body of research around this is really interesting and important. Social memory—in other words, a memory that is connected to a social exchange—is far more robust and effective than nonsocial memory. This is an important area for future research around learning.
Why do you think that brain science is so powerfully resonant right now in the learning and development community?
It's one of those rare times when something that has been intangible becomes more tangible. Any time this happens, in any field, it creates a wave of people digesting ideas that were otherwise indigestible. It's driven largely by technology, which enables more noteworthy research to be done. That's been key.
Additionally, my colleagues and many others have been working hard to help learning professionals digest the research in brain science, so it's a combination of technology and the work of groups like ours to bring this research into the mainstream.
What are three big changes that you see developing in the learning field during the next few years?
It's hard to say how quickly it will emerge, but one is personalized brain-based learning or brain training, assessing an individual's neurological capabilities, and developing them. I think that's going to come at some point.
There are some exciting innovations around biofeedback during training experiences. We've been experimenting with solutions that enable people to monitor and improve their own mental state with real-time feedback during a training experience.
Additionally, I think that brain research is going to provide the opportunity to understand the work we're doing as learning professionals. It's going to help us to understand what we're actually trying to achieve in the classroom in a much more granular way, by understanding how the brain works around learning.
I think overall, the biggest value is the language that people will start to develop for how we learn, how we think, and how we innovate. The most important value of the field may be in developing an accurate terminology for how the brain learns.
What do you enjoy doing most during your downtime?
I have a friend who has a series of photographs of my wife and I napping somewhere: on a park bench, under a tree, on the subway. I love to take a nap in the afternoon, not really caring where I am. I find that excellent for downtime. I also know the research on that, so it encourages me.
Otherwise, I really love to go and take a power walk and let my brain just wander. The ideas that come forward are amazing.
My favorite activity is snowboarding—getting down that mountain and flying through the snow. I don't know if it's any good for the brain or not, but it's really fun.