Bill Gates’ Brain and Leadership Lessons

You may have heard about the wonderful speech that Bill Gates delivered in Harvard on June 7th. The full Remarks are worthy of reading and reflecting on. His message may be summarized in this sentence:

“And I hope you will come back here to Harvard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your talent and your energy. I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities … on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.”

A noteworthy aspect of the speech was the display of what neuroscientists call Executive Functions, which are located in our Frontal Lobes-the part of our brains that enable us to learn and adapt to new environments. The brain region that makes a “sharp brain”.

See here Bill Gates’ advice on how to find solutions in complex environments-and how he applies a learned pattern to guide his actions in the field of AIDS prevention. A great example of those Executive Funcions in action:

– “Cutting through complexity to find a solution runs through four predictable stages: determine a goal, find the highest-leverage approach, discover the ideal technology for that approach, and in the meantime, make the smartest application of the technology that you already have – whether it’s something sophisticated, like a drug, or something simpler, like a bednet.”

– “The AIDS epidemic offers an example. The broad goal, of course, is to end the disease. The highest-leverage approach is prevention. The ideal technology would be a vaccine that gives lifetime immunity with a single dose. So governments, drug companies, and foundations fund vaccine research. But their work is likely to take more than a decade, so in the meantime, we have to work with what we have in hand – and the best prevention approach we have now is getting people to avoid risky behavior.”

– “The final step – after seeing the problem and finding an approach – is to measure the impact of your work and share your successes and failures so that others learn from your efforts.”

Incredibly insightful. How is he able to think in such a way? what kind of brain is helping him? how did his lifelong experiences help in shaping his brain? Certainly, good advice for us all.

Here you have a relevant fragment of my recent interview with Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg (EG), renowned neuroscientist and author of The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind.

Alvaro Fernandez: “Please tell us more about what the Frontal Lobes are”

EG: “We researchers typically call them the Executive Brain. The prefrontal cortex is young by evolutionary terms, and is the brain area critical to adapt to new situations, plan for the future, and self-regulate our actions in order to achieve long-term objectives. We could say that that part of the brain, right behind our forehead, acts as the conductor of an orchestra, directing and integrating the work of other parts of the brain.”

EG: “I provide a good example in The Executive Brain book, where I explain how I was able to organize my escape from Russia into the US.”

EG: “Significantly, the pathways that connect the frontal lobes with the rest of the brain are slow to mature, reaching full operational state between ages 18 and 30, or maybe even later. And, given that they are not as hard-wired as other parts of the brain, they are typically the first areas to decline.”

Well, I’d say Mr. Gates has pretty mature and solid pathways and frontal lobes, as shown by his quotes above and hos track record!

Now you may be wondering, “Can you please give us a bit more detail on what those Executive Functions are?”. OK, here you have a quick overview:

– Planning: foresight in devising multi-step strategies.

– Flexibility: ability for quickly moving from one to other mental attitude as appropriate.

– Inhibition: the ability to withstand distraction, and internal urges.

– Anticipation: prediction based on pattern recognition.

– Critical evaluation: logical analysis.

– Working memory: capacity to hold and manipulate information “on-line” in our minds in real time.

– Fuzzy logic: capacity to choose with incomplete information.

– Divided attention: ability to pay attention to more than one thing at a time.

– Decision-making: both quality and speed.

A highly recommended book, if you are interested in learning more about Executive Functions and Frontal Lobes, is The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind , by Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg.

Now remember, Use It or Lose it 🙂 Good luck with exercising those Frontal Lobes!

Copyright (c) 2007 SharpBrains