Neuroscience provides some hard evidence that leaders who build brain stamina are smarter, more motivated, more creative and more engaged, resulting in superior performance and enhanced business outcomes (Gordon, 2000)
The approach taken in this article is to share from social cognitive neuroscience literature how specific brain stamina building strategies have differential and beneficial effects on the mind that complement each other, providing together a well-balanced “mental diet” for optimal neuro-cognitive functioning and wellbeing. The seven strategies are listed in the figure below. In this first article we will focus on the first four behaviours; Sleep, Social Connections, Exercise and Novelty.
Our Workplace Reality: “Power Stress”
According to Boyatzis & Balize (2006), leaders often experience what can be referred to as “power stress” – having to process a lot of data very deeply, be creative, and at same time trying to think in terms of people.
Prolonged power stress leads to physiological and neurological wear and tear called allostatic load and reflects how the brain deals with emotional stimuli, namely via the limbic system activation. The limbic system includes four brain structures: the amygdala, the hippocampus, the hypothalamus, and the frontal cortex. These four combine to provide an adaptive response to a learned sensory stimulus (Payne, 2011). The default mode for this system is to minimise danger and maximise reward. There is a strong response to fear or danger, which puts the individual in an “away” state, whereas the prospect of a reward creates a “toward” motivation.
Given that the amygdala and hippocampus have the highest cortisol receptor sensitivity in the brain, prolonged allostatic load thus impairs the function and form of the circuits responsible for memory, problem solving, creativity, and emotional regulation (Payne, 2011). This has a negative impact on leadership performance, as chronic stress leads to working memory loss, increased pessimism, reduced insight, and reduced verbal fluency (Payne, 2011).
High cognitive load also reduces leaders’ ability to consider the views of others, leading to what is known as a false consensus bias. Leaders with a false consensus bias tend to overestimate the extent to which their beliefs or opinions are typical of those of others (Bauman et al, 2002). Since the brain circuits for thinking about self are activated in a similar way when thinking about others (Lieberman & Pfeiffer, 2005), leaders that are not self-aware are also not aware of others. This can have negative consequences for both business results and team effectiveness.
A leader’s peak mental performance occurs when there are intermediate levels of two important neurotransmitters, norepinephrine and dopamine, which relate to alertness and interest (Arnsten, 1998). Insights from neuroscience show that there are small shifts in behaviour and habits that leaders can make to increase their level of leadership brain stamina. These behaviors are explored in the next section, as well as Part 2 of this short series.
Behaviours Building Leadership Brain Stamina
The purpose of this section is to now unpack the first four of seven possible behaviours to increase leadership brain stamina as outlined in the picture below:
It is not uncommon for busy leaders to wear their lack of sleep as a badge of honour. However, sleep deprivation can wreak havoc with brain stamina leading to poor problem solving, poor emotional regulation and poor or inappropriate judgement and decision-making.
According to Payne (2011), there are three factors which are core for the brain to function optimally – and for enabling the leader to be resourceful – moderate stress, good sleep and positive mood. While this sounds simple, it is contrary to the real world pressures most decision makers experience, in that leaders often cannot process incoming data efficiently, because of overly high allostatic load or ‘threat’ levels. Allostatic load occurs partly because of interaction between three experiences. High stress makes sleep and positive affect worse. Poor sleep makes stress and positive affect worse. And negative affect tends to make sleep and stress worse.
Thus, when individuals have high levels of all three aforementioned experiences, the interaction can result in overly high stress experiences with significant cognitive impairment, impacting basic perception as well as judgment and decision-making. High levels of ongoing stress can also create permanent damage to the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for memory, with its high number of cortisol receptors (Payne & Nadel, 2004).
Insufficient sleep also means leaders are not giving their brains the necessary time to integrate information in a meaningful way and are therefore operating at a sub optimal level, especially with regard to creativity. Sleep also plays a big role in regulating emotions, a crucial strength for any executive. The sleeping brain is highly active – the brain cherry-picks what we remember during sleep, resulting in sharper and clearer thinking (Payne & Kensinger, 2011).
Payne & Kensinger (2011) found that as little as a seven-minute nap with REM (or dream) sleep allows regeneration of creative brain circuits and enhances the ability to integrate unassociated information for problem solving and improves mood.
According to Eisenberger (2011), we are socially wired – social belonging is a primary need like food, shelter, water. Social pain, such as being isolated or left out, produces similar and equally strong brain responses as physical pain. Given that the brain’s defaults network (DNW) is task-negative (Buckner et al, 2008) we are constantly busy with autobiographical memory retrieval, envisioning the future, and conceiving the perspectives of others, scanning to see where we are positioned in our social or professional group (Rock, 2009). The decision that someone is friend (similar to us) or foe (dissimilar to us) happens quickly and impacts brain functioning (Gordon, 2000; Mitchell et al, 2006).
Ways to leverage the social network is to develop self- awareness and awareness of others through perspective taking, building similarities or in-group circuitry through shared experiences, strengthen social connections and increase a sense of relatedness (Adolphs, 2009). From a neuroscientific perspective, this process generates oxytocin, allowing our brains to classify the other person as “friend” rather than “foe,” and contributes to feelings of trust and empathy.
Every time the brain works on an idea consciously, it uses up measurable and limited brain resources (Rock, 2009). The most important mental processes, such as prioritising, often take the most effort. Taking breaks at work, following a healthy omega rich diet, and engaging in regular physical exercise all enhance neurogenesis (“renewal” of brain functioning). Physical exercise promotes a protein called BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor) that stimulates the growth of new brain cells (Chiesa et al, 2009). Simply put, regular and frequent physical activity can contribute significantly to a healthy mind.
The adult brain is not hard-wired with fixed neuronal circuits. There are many instances of cortical and subcortical rewiring of neuronal circuits in response to training or insight creation. However, it is easy to get stuck on the same small set of solutions to a problem, called the impasse phenomenon (Rock, 2009). Resolving an impasse requires letting the brain idle, reducing activation of the wrong answers. Having insights involves hearing subtle signals and allowing loose connections to be made. This requires a quiet mind, with minimal electrical activity. Insights occur more frequently when you are more relaxed and happy. The right brain hemisphere, which involves the connections between information more than specific data, contributes strongly to insight (Rock,2009).
Leaders can enhance their ability to create insights by alternating between exerting energy and recharging energy. For example, by doing something fun, getting a change of scenery, taking a break, and doing something light and interesting.
Building leadership brain stamina requires learning a few vital behavioral habits that requires a shift in attention and action. It is to some degree about not falling into the trap of “being set in your ways”. As Deepak Chopra puts it his book Super Brain; “Though we feel secure with what we know, being lazy and apathetic about learning new habits is enemy number one of unlimited potential” .
We hope that this short article has raised your interest in the application of neuroscience to leadership, and has provided you with some practical guidelines also to further develop your personal and leadership effectiveness.
Adolphs, R. (2009). The Social Brain: Neural Basis of Social Knowledge. Annual Review of Psychology, 60(1), 693-716.
Arnsten, A.F., (1998). The biology of being frazzled, Science (new York, NY) 280 no 5370 (June 12, 1998): 1711-1712.
Bauman, K.P.; Geher, G.; (2002). “We think you agree: The detrimental impact of the false consensus effect on behavior”. Current Psychology 21 (4): 293–318.
Boyatzis, R.E., Smith M & Balize, N., (2006). Developing sustainable leaders through coaching and compassion, Academy of Management Journal on Learning and Education 5(1): 8-24
Buckner, R.L.; Andrews-Hanna, J.R.; Schacter, D.L. (2008). “The Brain’s Default Network: Anatomy, Function, and Relevance to Disease”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1124: 1–38.
Chiesa & Serretti, (2009). Psychological Medicine, 27, 1-14: Meta-anlysis studies show that “mindfulness-based stress reduction” has been related with reductions in pain, cancer, cardiovascular problems, depression, anxiety and stress.