On the Neuroscience of Leadership…

Founder and Program Manager - Mid Western Mentoring Ltd
Leadership & Career Coach, Leadership facilitator, HR Consultant - The Centre for Executive Development

Due to the growing field of NeuroLeadership (a term coined in 2006 by Australian neuroscientist Dr David Rock) which is ‘the integrated application of neuroscience to Leadership’, I would like to take the time to share a NeuroLeadership tip on how to most effectively engage your brain especially during these trying COVID-19 times.

My friend and colleague Kristen Hansen has written a book called ‘Traction – the neuroscience of leadership and performance’ within which she describes her NeuroTREAD™ framework that is focused on how effectively we can get the most out of our brains from a leadership perspective; in essence, how we Think, Regulate, Engage, Adapt and Develop with the brain in mind.

I too am accredited in Kristen’s framework and with her permission, I would like to share just one of the aspects of ‘THINK’ – from her NeuroTREAD™ model.

I thought it would be useful for Local Business Leaders to have an understanding of key brain structures related to decision-making and in essence how to maximise our creative and cognitive capacity. In these trying times our brains can get quite stressed and how do we therefore ensure that we are focused on the key daily requirements for the brain’s optimal performance.

There are many structures within the brain but the one we are going to focus on here is the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is located at the front of the brain behind the forehead and is responsible for our executive functioning and is known as ‘our thinking brain’.

The PFC is responsible for some of the following executive functions:

  • Decision making
  • Planning
  • Problem solving
  • Logic
  • Understanding
  • Recall

It is the conscious part of our brain and while it is a very busy part, it only accounts for 4% of the brain’s overall mass. Oxygen and glucose fuel the PFC and these are carried by the blood to the brain. When there is not enough of blood flow, oxygen or glucose our PFC doesn’t work so well and we cannot think straight. Also, when we are in a “threat state” ie when we are feeling frustrated, worried, negative, annoyed (as these COVID-19 times are doing for us), our PFC doesn’t work as well and we are less connected, have less insights, are risk averse, problem focused etc. It is important to be aware of our threat state and instead aim to consciously get in to a ‘reward state’ where the PFC works more effectively and we become more solutions orientated.

Let’s look at a simple example of how to use this information about the brain to create a more effective workplace. We typically get to a point at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon when our PFCs become depleted. While this is a generalisation, it’s a pretty accurate one. In leadership workshop scenarios whenever the group is asked the question of when they do their best work – approximately 70% of attendees attest to doing their best work in the morning.

This information has some clear implications for how we approach our work day. Some neuroscientists state that we have 4 hours a day of optimal thinking and decision-making. Usually, that means we do our best work before lunchtime, at which time things start to dip down but most of us just press on through that dip, often with a sweet treat or a coffee to give us a sugar-hit or a resurgence in energy.

If our brain does its best thinking in the morning, it is worth considering then are we using our brains most effectively i.e. in the right way and at the best time? A lot of leaders we work with are starting to rearrange their diaries or reorganise their days according to the functioning of their brains. They may avoid run-of-the-mill meetings in the morning. That is instead a better time for strategy, reflection, prioritisation and organisation. These types of functioning use a lot of brain fuel and so we need to have a ‘full tank’ to ensure their effectiveness.

If you need to have a meeting in the morning, make it a strategic or creative one and leave checking emails and having work-in-progress meetings until the afternoon. For those of you who have your best thinking in the afternoon or evening, are you arranging your day in the best way to capitalise on this?

If something in this article has piqued your interest in NeuroLeadership, I would be keen to hear from you at your convenience. Please contact Pearl Daly-Swords on +61 (0)419 237 619 / pearl@ced.com.au.

Founder and Program Manager - Mid Western Mentoring Ltd
Leadership & Career Coach, Leadership facilitator, HR Consultant - The Centre for Executive Development