What do gorillas, an abundance mindset and leadership have in common?

What do gorillas, an abundance mindset and leadership have in common?

In a 2013 study, Harvard University researchers gathered a team of radiologists to review lung scans. These lung scans contained an interesting distraction – an image of a gorilla, placed in the top right corner of the scan.

Incredibly, more than 80 per cent of the radiologists overlooked the gorilla picture. Retina imagery revealed that all of the radiologists studied the corner containing the image – so why did their brains go into “autopilot” and gloss right over it?


At our Breakfast Seminar, Creating Connected Communities, executive coach, speaker and author Belinda Brosnan discussed the different stages of leadership: Autopilot, aware and abundant.

“People don’t follow you because you are nice, they follow you because they believe the place you are taking them is better than the place they are.” ― Scott Hammerle

Are you on Autopilot?

In the example above with the gorilla image, the researchers were trained to look for something specific on the lung scans, and were so focused on searching for what they expected to see that they overlooked a glaring abnormality. At the autopilot stage, a leader is like being stuck on a treadmill: Going through an endless routine that may keep an organisation afloat, but isn’t driving growth or stimulating change.

The autopilot stage has dangerous implications. It can cause leaders to become highly reactive and emotional when routines are disturbed or when core policies and procedures are re-examined to accommodate changes in an organisation. However, the draw to stay in autopilot is overwhelming because it’s reinforced by four common human behaviours:

The need to belong, or the drive we have to feel connected to others, often keeps us from speaking our minds and reaching our full potential. Researchers have found that our desire to belong is even more powerful than fear in regards to what motivates us – it prevents us from speaking our minds, going against the grain and getting out of our comfort zones.

In regards to comfort zones, being on autopilot is efficient. Our limbic system, which regulates emotions, learning and memory, gets to take a break when we cruise through our work, dodging the most challenging parts and honing in on tasks that don’t move the needle. As a result, we don’t access our prefrontal cortex–the part of the brain that is responsible for critical thinking and high-level executive functions.

Fear is another powerful factor. Our ancestors relied strongly on their limbic systems to avoid perils in their environment. As leaders, fear leads us to minimise threats instead of maximising rewards: a limitation that keeps us firmly locked in our comfort zones.

Lastly, leaders stuck in autopilot have a desire for control. These leaders might have far too much involvement in tasks that don’t concern them, simply because they can’t let go of control. Constantly needing to be in the driver’s seat prevents leaders from reaching their full potential.

The Power of Awareness

“Do not allow your inner doubts to keep you from achieving what you can do.” ― Lolly Daskal

Awareness, the next step on the ladder toward abundance leadership, is a challenging step at which leaders start to recognise their own incompetence. Leaders in this stage understand that a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset, is necessary for navigating all the ups and downs that accompany change.

Simply put, mindset matters: A growth mindset frames learning and effort as stepping stones on the path to mastery. We observe how small, incremental efforts impact the bigger picture, and in turn we take on more challenging tasks in pursuit of excellence.

Becoming aware doesn’t entirely eliminate challenges that plague leaders in the autopilot stage, but it does equip us to manage the four limiting behaviours described earlier.


Achieving Abundance

“When our leadership is conscious and purpose driven, we’re focused on the right things. We are responsive rather than reactive, and we’re decisive because we’re clear about what matters deep within us.” – Belinda Brosnan

Reaching the abundance stage leads to periods of explosive growth and creativity. In the abundance stage, we’ve earned mastery of self-leadership, which is necessary for leading others.

Leaders moving into the abundant stage focus on doing what they can with what they have, instead of blaming problems on extenuating circumstances. When a leader adopts an expansive mindset, the impact of their efforts is multiplied – the leader and everyone they oversee is positively affected in the abundant stage.

Belinda’s work took her to Senegal, where she learned about Coumba. Described as the “lion” by the Mayor of Koki, Coumba was originally illiterate until trained by The Hunger Project. She’s now a Municipal leader at national level in Senegal and has trained more than 5000 vulnerable women in creating and leading sustainable businesses.

When asked what her advice was in lifting others up as a leader, she said “yawou, yawou, yawou” … wake up, wake up, wake up. Open them up to a vision of what is possible with commitment and action. An incredible demonstration of “power with” leadership.


Having an abundant mindset transforms our leadership abilities and opens our eyes, allowing us to spot opportunities, weaknesses and needs within our organisations. We start to notice the “gorillas” instead of being hyper-focused on routine tasks that present themselves every day.

Moving from autopilot to abundance can take months or even years of concerted effort, but as leaders progress through the three stages and successfully navigate challenges along the way, they’ll emerge with confidence, clarity, and the ability to positively impact everyone in their midst.



“Our wiring as human beings is to seek certainty, comfort, and safety, which is the complete opposite of what is today’s and tomorrow’s reality: complexity, change, and uncertainty”.
Belinda Brosnan, Start with You: Lead from the Inside





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