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What Neuroscience Can Teach About Leadership


You may have heeded sage advice by delegating tasks and avoiding distractions. But even with the decks cleared to tackle pressing problems, you may find yourself stressed and no closer to answers. This is because of the way we – and by “we” I mean the human race – are hardwired. Understanding the veritable mechanical drawing inside of you gives rise to new ways to solve business issues. This is the very reason why some of the top brain scientists and business consultants in the world convened in New York recently at the NeuroLeadership Summit. What came out of the Summit was insight into the science that underlies leadership and techniques for firing up your brain specifically to focus on higher-level problem solving.

The truth is that most people feel discomfort or burdened when they have to do hard problem solving. That’s because of the way the brain evolved. Primitive ancestors had to constantly scan the environment for threats lest they be eaten. That is hardwired into our brains today. When a threat is found, brain chemicals create a physical response. Everything shuts down except for those activities that help fight or flee. For example, digestion shuts down. It just so happens that there is a separate part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, or PFC, that also shuts down. The problem is that the PFC is the area of the brain responsible for planning, multi-tasking, switching goals and making thoughtful decisions. When you can’t wrap your arms around a problem, let alone find the solution, it is because your physical and chemical inner-workings are preventing it. The first great take away from this is: Forgive’re human.

Of course, this does not mean that business outcomes are or should be predetermined by the limits found by brain science. What it does mean is that the steps to move your business forward depend on personal shifts. The following techniques are grounded in understandings revealed by brain science.

1. Pause

When you pause and step away from day-to-day operations, you have the opportunity to see the business and issues from a loftier point of view. Pausing is not to be confused with pacing the floor or calling a meeting to deal with a specific problem. The traps of the brain persist when pause time is defined by problems. That’s because active problems are processed internally as threats and, as revealed earlier, the perception of threat shuts down clear thinking. Instead, schedule pauses on a regular timetable. This has the effect of putting time and distance between problems and the pause time during which they will be reviewed.

The compliment to pausing is not reacting to problems in the moment they become acute. This is not abdication. Again, brain science predicts that it would be veritably impossible to not have a physical reaction, such as raised blood pressure. But, consciously tamping down reactions in the moment and dealing with them rationally during pause time has the effect of rehearsing. This is the cornerstone of boot camp. Soldiers learn correct behaviors precisely when there is no real threat so that they become habituated and kick in during real crises. Pausing sets up the possibility for management acumen to be similarly internalized.

2. Map

However crudely, draw a visual picture of your business. This is not as daunting as it may sound because a business process is somewhat linear. For instance, marketing leads to client engagement which depends on a product or service having been acquired or built which supports delivery which leads to client consumption which then leads to a closing event (usually in the form of a bill) which leads to collection.

Break these steps free from the linear form and place them randomly on a sheet of paper. Then with connecting lines, show how they depend on and affect one another.

Leadership is not so much about managing each self-contained step as it is about managing the connections between them. This insight tends to get lost when business owners are proverbially “down in the weeds.” Using a map has the effect of fortifying the big picture. Studies of the brain show that while you may know something at a moment of insight or learning, knowledge gets lost when you don’t use it. Referring to the map repeatedly paves neural pathways, thereby embedding knowledge. As with riding a bicycle, it can then be called into action with no conscious (PFC) thought.

3. Anchor

Anchor your concept of presenting day-to-day issues to your higher-level pictures. In so doing, a sales employee’s anger toward delivery employees may suddenly be seen as a short circuit in the process. Rather than choosing which employee is wrong, anchoring and reappraising can find solutions. The technique of reappraising is proven to be the most effective way to self-regulate emotions. Functional MRIs of subjects show that when reappraising, fight or flight reactions go down while PFC activity goes up.

Reputedly, Buddha said, “What we think, we become.” Bringing your business to it’s highest level depends on your ability to see the relevant big picture, hold tightly to it and bring your constituents along your journey. With the help of brain science, we now know how.

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