Lean In and Why Women's Brains Are Wired for Leadership

MENLO PARK, CA - JANUARY 15:  Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg greets members of the media prior introducing
MENLO PARK, CA - JANUARY 15: Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg greets members of the media prior introducing Graph Search features during a presentation January 15, 2013 in Menlo Park, California. Facebook announced a search function that works within the website and allows users to search content that people have shared with you or is public. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

Even before Sheryl Sandberg's bestseller, Lean In, was published, the Facebook chief operating officer anticipated a backlash. "Everyone loves a fight -- and they really love a catfight," she wrote. "The media will report endlessly about women attacking other women, which distracts from the real issues."

Fueling the firestorm of controversy that began with Jodi Kantor's New York Times story, followed by Maureen Dowd's column and many other reviews, is the perception that Sandberg blames women for sabotaging their career potential.

In a TED talk, Sandberg listed three ways that she feels that women undermine themselves:

  • Even if presented with an opportunity to "sit at the table" with the (male) power players, women often sideline themselves because they feel unworthy. Part of the problem is that women "substantially underestimate their own abilities," Sandberg contends.

  • Women end up doing far more than their fair share of child rearing and housework, when they should insist that their spouses be "real partners."
  • Psychologically, women frequently "leave before they're ready to leave," says Sandberg, by making unconscious decisions that limit their success in the workplace, such as putting themselves on the mommy track even before they get married, to leave room in their lives for kids in the future.
  • In Lean In, Sandberg expands on these themes. "We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in," she wrote, suggesting that these are some of the reasons why "men still run the world."

    Surprising Insights from Brain Science

    As I report in my new book, Unleash the Power of the Female Brain, women are actually wired for success. The "CEO part of the brain" -- the prefrontal cortex, which controls judgment, organization, impulse control, and planning -- is more active in women, suggesting that women are wired to hold positions of power and run the world.

    In a recent article, I discussed intriguing discoveries my team and I made when we conducted the largest brain-imaging study ever conducted. The study involved comparing single photon emissions computed tomography (SPECT) scans of 26,000 people.1 A key finding was that women had significantly more cerebral brain flow in 112 of the 128 regions we measured -- including the inner CEO (prefrontal cortex), and in the limbic or emotional brain.

    An article in the June 2011 Harvard Business Review had an intriguing title: "What Makes a Team Smarter? More Women." The article discussed a study in which teams were given a number of tasks involving brainstorming, decision-making, and problem solving. Teams were given collective intelligence scores based on their performance.

    Guess which teams did better? If you guessed that it was the teams that had higher individual IQ scores, you would be wrong. The teams that had a higher "group IQ" were the teams with more women.

    Harness the Hidden Power of the Female Brain

    Due to increased brain activity, women tend to have greater strengths in 5 specific areas that play a key role in leadership. However, as a psychiatrist, I have also observed over many years that my female patients at the Amen Clinics face certain challenges that hold them back from unleashing their power.

    Understanding both the gifts and the challenges helps women harness the power of the female brain to achieve the success they deserve. Now, more than ever, we need thoughtful, intelligent, powerful, "brain-smart" to guide and redirect our communities, churches, workplaces, nation and world.

    Here's a look at the greatest strengths of the female brain -- and potential pitfalls to watch for:

    Empathy and collaboration: A woman's enhanced empathic response may give her an edge in building a consensus within a group. Many women bosses encourage collaboration over individual power, while men may be more focused on problem-solving than group dynamics. All of this may help women be better leaders. However, the downside of empathy can be doing too much for others or difficulty setting appropriate boundaries. In addition, while it's important for a leader to care about the problems and challenges subordinates face -- and take their views into account -- excessive concern about the feelings and opinions of followers could hinder a boss from making tough decisions for the good of the organization.

    Intuition: Women's intuition gives them an edge in reading people and making smart decisions. While this trait may seem mysterious, research shows it's actually a type of unconscious reasoning based on recognizing patterns -- a process that Herbert Simon, Ph.D called "chunking." Women have also been shown to be more adept at picking up other people's nonverbal cues, with Ruben Gur, Ph.D., a psychologist and neuroscientist at University of Pennsylvania, reporting that, "Women are faster and more accurate at identifying emotions."

    My good friend Cynthia Graff is the CEO of Lindora, a highly successful group of weight-loss clinics in Southern California that is primarily a female organization. Cynthia places high value on intuition, which she believes offers her company a competitive advantage. "If you tap into your intuition," she says, "you can get me the solutions faster than if you have to wade through all the data."

    However, as Cynthia cautions, "it's important to validate women's intuition," through also examining the facts. Otherwise, an intuitive woman can all too easily jump to the wrong conclusion. Another potential pitfall is that intuition can awaken anxiety-inducing fears, as you "know" something is wrong without taking the time to check it out or get more information before acting on your hunch.

    Self-control. The ability to focus on a long-term goal -- not just a short-term gain -- and avoid acting recklessly is integral to effective leadership. Research also shows that women are better at keeping their tempers in check and defusing escalating situations to avert a crisis. Women's superior self-control is manifest in many areas of life, with lower risk for substance abuse, going to jail, or even getting a traffic ticket. The drawback of self-control is that it can turn into trying to over-control others.

    Appropriate worry. Women tend to worry about and take care of their health more effectively than men. This point is actually quite fascinating -- in a large study, it was found that the "don't worry, be happy" people, more typically men on motorcycles, died earlier from accidents and preventable illness. Appropriate worry may be one reason why women live longer than men. 2 And in the workplace, both understanding the big picture -- and keeping an eye on small details -- can often make the difference between success and failure.

    But the worry that is so useful in small doses can also escalate into a source of stress to the point that it becomes exhausting or even leads to illness. Therefore, it's crucial to channel worry into action, by seeking help when it's needed. Men are often overly optimistic and may not see a problem that's right in front of them -- one of the reasons why men often don't ask for directions. They don't realize they're lost!

    To admit that you're lost is to admit a failure, and many men have trouble doing that. But at the same time, it's often been observed that the ability to learn from mistakes or failure is central to leadership. And ultimately, when Sandberg urges women to "lean in" and examine ways in which they might be undercutting their career potential, she's suggesting that women may need a new roadmap to reach the executive suite in higher numbers.


    [1] Amen, D, Trujillo, M, Keator, D, et al. "Gender differences in rCBF in a healthy and psychiatric cohort of 46034 SPECT scans." Amen Clinics. 2013. In advance of publication.

    [2] Friedman H, Martin L. "The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study." 2011. Plume.

    For more by Daniel Amen, M.D., click here.