The real science behind: “Walk the walk, talk the talk”

Can anyone honestly say that they haven’t heard this phrase in reference to good leadership many times? As leaders, we are often reminded to “walk the walk, and talk the talk”, particularly when it comes to safety behaviours. But why is this so important, and what do we know about how the brain works to help us better harness the power of role modelling?

In the 1980s and 1990s, four scientists from the University of Parma in Italy were studying hand/mouth coordination. To be more specific, they were studying the brain cells responsible for the control of hand and mouth actions. To do that they undertook research with monkeys that involved wiring them to an FMRI machine and making food available to them. When the monkey reached out to the food, specific neurons would fire in the premotor cortex of their brain. It was these patterns of response the researchers were analysing.

An accidental discovery

One day during a break, one of the researchers reached for his own food, and was amazed to find that neurons began to fire in a monkey’s premotor cortex—the same area activated when the monkeys reached for their own food. It seemed as though the monkey’s brain was responding in the same way when it observed someone else reach for food, as when the monkey itself reached for food. Because of the way the neurons responded to either the execution or observation of an activity, these neurons were labelled mirror neurons.

This finding took the phrase “monkey see, monkey do” to a new level! However, one of the most exciting outcomes of this study for psychologists was that it created the scientific platform for us to understand one of the most crucial competencies of effective leadership – role modelling.

The powerful effect of watching

Mirror neurons have since been observed in humans, showing us that there is a specific brain response to watching someone else display a behaviour. You may now be starting to see the importance of role modelling as a leader. Team members naturally observe and copy their leaders’ behaviour, whether that behaviour is positive or negative. When a leader sets the benchmark for what is expected from their workers and consciously chooses to demonstrate positive behaviours to their team, this is effective role modelling.

To harness the power of this very important competency you may want to reflect on the following questions:

  • Are most of your behaviours a product of conscious processing, or are you just doing things the way you’ve always done them?
  • What impact does this have on the culture you want to work towards?
  • Have there been times when you advocated for your team to display behaviours that you yourself didn’t necessary demonstrate? What message did that send?
  • Do you invest time and conscious energy to strategically display behaviours that you want others to adopt?

Ultimately, what will you do differently now that you understand a little more about your powerful brain?


Regional Manager Client Solutions QLD, NZ & Middle East

Bruno joined Sentis in 2012 and has a strong passion for safety and assisting both individuals and organizations to achieve operational excellence and sustainable change. His diverse set of skills ranging from facilitation, coaching, and leadership have driven him to work in numerous industries across Australia and throughout the world. Originally from Europe, is Clinical Psychologist with more than 15 years’ experience. His training and background in Psychoanalysis also led him to his own private practice for more than seven years. Bruno is now set to put forward all his knowledge and skills to help organisations change their cultures for the better. Bruno’s experience range from Mining, Gas, Power, Construction, Utilities, Services, with clients like BHP Billiton, MMG, Rio Tinto, Black Mountain Mining, Xtrata, Koniambo, New Hope Group, Austral Fisheries, Graincorp, Sydney Trains, Lendlease, Glencore, Suncorp, etc.

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