Self-leadership: the neuroscience of leadership and implications for carers

Photo of Erk Gunce, South West Leadership Academy's Inclusion Coordinator, smiling.Foreword from Erk Gunce (pronouns: him/he/his)

Inclusion Coordinator, NHS South West Leadership Academy


We often talk about ‘what it takes to be a leader’. Dr Raka Maitra (she/her) takes a different approach to this question, exploring the neuroscience of leadership. How does our brain impact our ability to learn from change, challenge and conflict? How does stress and fear contribute to new learning? And how does leadership show itself in colleagues with caring responsibilities? Colleagues who prefer audio material can also listen to a recent podcast by Dr Maitra exploring the neuroscience of leadership.

Photo of Dr Raka Maitra, the author of the blogpost, smiling.

Dr Raka Maitra DPM, MD, MRCPsych (pronouns: she/her)

Biography: Dr Raka Maitra is currently training in Child adolescent Psychiatry and Child Psychotherapy at Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. Dr Maitra is passionate about supporting career development of women and she carries out this aspiration through her roles as Secretary and Complex caring responsibilities lead at Women and Mental Health Special Interest Group, Royal College of Psychiatrists. She was nominated for Hans Brinker leadership series ‘Extraordinary leaders, Extraordinary times’ in 2020. She was featured in the 25 Women project celebrating lives of 25 Women Psychiatrists by WMHSIG at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2021.

Leaders know thyselfperhaps can now be used as our self-leadership mantra. More and more it is being recognised that as organizations are made of people, enhancing personal attributes contributes to effective leadership (Pinnow, 2011). Leadership during Covid has emphasized the need for effective compassionate leaders who can respond quickly to change and respond positively to challenges. Leaders during Covid have had to juggle challenges in their personal lives as well as challenges facing the organization. Covid has impacted everyone’s lives irrespective of the direct impact on their health. Building resilience is now an essential attribute of self-leadership.

Resilience is not built in an isolated cocoon. Neuroscience informs us that our fear centre in the brain (called amygdala) that is activated during stress, needs to work hand in hand with that part of the brain that lays foundation for new learning (called hippocampus) and our decision making part of the brain (called prefrontal cortex) that can regulate the activity of our fear centre. This complex interplay within our brains contributes to resilience (Hunter, Gray, & McEwen, 2018). Facing adversities in our lives shapes this ability of complex interplay. However, facing adversities too early in life, such as in childhood, may interfere with the growth of our brains thus limiting the development of this ability (Hackman, Farah, & Meaney, 2010). Counter-intuitively, a life without challenges may lead to underperformance in problem solving (Charles, Mogle, Chai, & Almeida, 2021) which is one of the necessary skills of a leader. Neuroscience tells us that if we want to look for resilient leaders, we need to look out for those who have managed change and challenges.

Covid has bared caring responsibilities within our societies. It has also bared unpaid or informal carers within the NHS workforce (Maitra, 2020). One of the reasons we did not hear about them earlier within the NHS is because this group of resilient workforce gets on with what needs doing. People who juggle difficult responsibilities and work learn to juggle with uncertainty, tap their resilience, and learn to be compassionate towards themselves, those they are caring for as well as those around them. These are people where life has demanded self-leadership from them in managing uncertainty and change while continuing to contribute as healthcare professionals. They bring to the NHS views from both sides of the table making them perfect candidates for inclusive, compassionate and transformational leaders.


Charles, S. T., Mogle, J., Chai, H. W., & Almeida, D. M. (2021). The mixed benefits of a stressor-free life [American Psychological Association doi:10.1037/emo0000958]. Retrieved

Hackman, D. A., Farah, M. J., & Meaney, M. J. (2010). Socioeconomic status and the brain: mechanistic insights from human and animal research. Nat Rev Neurosci, 11(9), 651-659. doi:10.1038/nrn2897

Hunter, R. G., Gray, J. D., & McEwen, B. S. (2018). The Neuroscience of Resilience. Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, 9(2), 305-339. doi:10.1086/697956

Maitra, R. (2020). Making the most of shielding: covid-19 is exposing the unpaid carers in NHS workforce. BMJ, 370, m3106. doi:10.1136/bmj.m3106

Pinnow, F. D. (2011). Leadership-what really matters. A Handbook on Systemic Leadership. Berlin Springer.



Receive our ‘Outlook’ newsletter

Latest issue: Leadership Outlook – April 2021  

To receive updates about the team and what programmes are on offer, just click below to sign up!