What Brain Science Can Teach Us About Leadership

Brain Science Leadership


Much of your brain is hardwired from birth. Our primitive reflexes make us hyper-alert for bad news. Our brains detect negative information faster than positive information, and we have a stronger memory for painful experiences than pleasurable ones. This hardwiring ensured the survival of our ancestors.

But the world has changed, and we now know more about how our brains can best help us in today’s world. Studies in brain science have revealed that our prefrontal cortex provides thinking processes that allow us to override the primitive instincts that no longer serve us. It gives us the ability to make choices about our behavior – IF we are intentional.

Brain science shows us the old excuses don’t hold up.

Far too many leaders are unaware of the effect of their actions on others, leaving a wake of anxious people in their path. We can’t let them off the hook for this anymore. Brain science has demonstrated that we have the ability to become aware of the effect of our actions AND even more importantly, that through our prefrontal cortex, we have the ability to consciously consider our actions.

Far too many leaders have used the excuse, “I’m too old to change. Others need to figure out how to adapt to my style.” That excuse doesn’t hold up anymore either. We now know that the human brain continues to grow and learn throughout our lives and that we are capable of changing at any point. You might not want to change, but you are never too old to change.

Three lessons from brain science that can increase your effectiveness as a leader.

1. When you are emotionally triggered, take a breath. And then take another one. Hold off on responding when you are angry or annoyed. We don’t have a choice about our feelings, but we do have a choice about how we respond to them.

It might give you relief to lash out, but too often trust is broken and repair is difficult, especially when this is a pattern. Our prefrontal cortex allows us to override our reactivity, to choose to delay the immediate gratification of relief at the expense of others, and to wait until our rational thinking returns before taking action.

2. Take responsibility for your relationships. Be aware of the effect of your actions on others and how they experience you. If you really want to know how you affect others, you need feedback from them. But unless people feel safe enough to speak the truth, they will only tell you what they think you want to hear.

It can be helpful to ask for anonymous feedback, but that should just be a first step. The real power of feedback comes during a conversation where, instead of giving explanations for your behavior, you listen and try to understand.

 3. Choose words and take actions that benefit others. Acting with kindness toward others actually affects your brain. It increases your level of oxytocin (associated with feeling good) and further develops your prefrontal cortex.

It is important to speak the truth and to give negative feedback when it is warranted. But when you consider your words and deliver the bad news with compassion, the effect is quite different on both the other person and on yourself.

38 comments to What Brain Science Can Teach Us About Leadership

  • Love #3, Jesse. That’s where the rubber hits the road. Lack of discipline, the need for self-affirmation, or short-sightedness waylay — “choosing words and taking action that benefits others.”

    Thanks for the insights and the challenge

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Hi Dan, Isn’t it interesting that brain science confirms what we already know? – that when we act in ways that benefit others, we actually benefit as well. Of course, overriding our primitive fear reflexes is a challenge, but not impossible if we remain conscious and aware of what is happening. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your insights here.

  • Super insights in this piece Jesse. I learned about emotional intelligence too late in my career to avoid all sorts of mistakes in dealing with people.

    Also interesting is how the amygdala plays such an integral role in our emotional responses. The brain takes a “chemical bath” when we are triggered which drive behavior in a powerful and almost automatic way. Nonetheless, I think you’re right that awareness is a key first step in getting past our “knee-jerk” responses.

    I went through a course in The Human Element a few weeks ago–great course by the way–and one of the things I learned is that our ability to be open and inclusive is founded on truthful communication and our ability to accept responsibility for the quality of the relationship. Seems basic, but in reality very difficult for all of us to do.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Hi Joe,
      I appreciate your further explanation of how our emotions affect our brain and the automatic response that is triggered. I think it’s fascinating how neurology, psychology and mindfulness are overlapping here and the powerful lessons it provides. And yes, just because we understand something intellectually doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. We have to practice, and practice and practice. And be kind to ourselves when we don’t get it right (as long as we don’t use it as an excuse to revert).

  • The fourth lesson: You can retrain your brain The amazing research into neuroplasticity is clear. New pathways can be created, over-riding old patterns. Likewise, the work by Dr. Daniel Amen at UCI shows how even damaged brains can recover retraiing, exercise, and proper diet. Check out his books.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Thanks for explaining more about how to create new neural pathways. I would add that in addition to training (like the exercise you are experimenting with to keep the brain placid), exercise and diet, another powerful method is learning to quiet the mind through meditation. As always, thanks for sharing your keen insights, Eileen.

  • Fascinating. I hope that leaders reading this whose first reaction might be that they are too old to change instead see the potential ROI of making these changes: better morale means less attrition for those employees who were unable to adapt to the style of the difficult leader.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      You’ve listed some strong motivators and benefits for making these kind of changes. I showed why it’s possible to change at any age. You demonstrate why it’s important to do so. Thanks for extending this conversation, Vic.

  • Wonderful post Jesse! I plan on adding this one as a resource as I continue with my anger series posts. #1 is HUGE! So SIMPLE to do yet it takes both conscious awareness and practice to be able to do it when triggered. I began rereading a short book that I have by Thich Naht Hahn called The Miracle of Mindfulness when I wrote my first anger post a few weeks back.

    All 3 points you’ve listed are EXCELLENT. And all take some practice. We can start with the people we already have some trust with and this can serve to help us grow our courage (and compassion) muscles for greater challenges.

  • Marye Gail Harrison

    Hi Jesse,
    I am so pleased you shared this message with your readers. I just read another book supporting this new brain science you describe and more. Published in 2013 by Dr. Majid Fotuhi, M.D., Ph.D. and Christina Breda Antoniades, “Boost Your Brain – the new art and science behind enhanced brain performance” updates the science and offers a guide to steps we can personally take.
    Best, Marye Gail

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Much thanks for sharing these references, Marye Gail. They are helpful not only for myself but for readers of my blog as well.

  • Lisa Knothe

    Great post Jesse. Number one is so important – not only do we need to take a breath with situations in person, but also in correspondence through email and social media. The adage ” Once it’s out there, you can’t take It back” is so powerful. It can be very career damaging to act out; actions stay in other’s minds for quite some time. When emotional, we’re not our usual rational selves. Walk away or send that email response later. You’ll have a different response, guaranteed. Thanks for this.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      I’m so glad you mentioned email and social media, Lisa. This is one of the places we get into the most trouble with our reactivity. And as you said, “once out there, you can’t take it back.” Emails can be easily forwarded to others; posting on the internet are public. It’s so easy to shoot off a quick response. Your suggestions are well taken. Thanks for sharing them.

  • Hi Jesse: Thanks for writing about this important topic. resetting default patterns is core to my 3Q model/work and the genesis of this work is rooted in a decade of study and work with clients who have learned to retrain their brains while also enhancing their ability to learn/relearn in high stress, high change arenas.

    Change is not our greatest problem, but our most important solution. Neuro plasticity and neurogenesis are amazing discoveries that must be integrated in essential skills that grow in the face of changes/challenges.

    Again, thanks for sharing an important message.

    Best, Irene

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Love this thought! – “Change is not our greatest problem, but our most important solution.” Thanks for sharing your wisdom here and reinforcing the power of applying the lessons from neuroscience, Irene.

  • Terrific post, Jesse!

    #3 might be #1–or it might be the only one anyone really needs.

    Leadership is about service. From beginning to end.

    Constantly asking oneself: Who Am I Serving?

    If one gets that right, the rest will follow.

    Simple? Yes… Easy?… Not on your life…. :-)

    Thanks again for provocative post….

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Absolutely, Jim. Much thanks for emphasizing this point. #3 is all about acting in service. And as you point out, even when we understand this, we will still “forget” at times. This is why #1 is such a valuable lesson – it allows us to create space between the stimulus and our reactivity to give us time to remember what is most important.

    • So with you here, James! I’m glad I didn’t become a father till I had made good headway absorbing and living this (difficult!) lesson myself. That will save me a lot of effort deprogramming of my future leaders as they come into their own!

      Invert the pyramid, and really live it. A “promotion” is about serving more people, not having more people serve you!

  • After reading the brain analysis of prefrontal cortex and rational mind, I think it’s all about controlling prefrontal cortex when it’s a somewhat safer environment like we live these days. #1 is good one. I remember Yoga is also about controlling breath when do any actions

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Yes, since we’re usually not facing saber tooth tigers with wooden spears for protection these days, our environment is safer. Even though we often don’t feel safe, we have other choices besides our instinctual fight-flight reactions. Breath is a powerful force in helping us stay grounded.

  • Lori Polachek

    Thanks for sharing this Jesse
    The effect of the brain on our interactions and our interactions on our neurochemistry, is indeed fascinating.

    A great new book- that links the neuroscience behind healthy thriving leadership, cultures and conversations… is a newly released book by Judith Glaser, CEO Creating WE Institute, called Conversational Intelligence, How great leaders build trust and get extraordinary results….http://www.amazon.com/Conversational-Intelligence-Leaders-Extraordinary-Results/dp/1937134679

    Best
    Lori

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      The point where disciplines overlap is fascinating. Thanks for the rec, Lori. There are a lot of good books coming out as this subject grows in popularity. I would also recommend my favorite (if you haven’t read it yet): Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson.

  • Jesse,

    What a spot-on post! I love it. All brilliant, but if I were to just highlight one point, it would be your point about coming from a place of compassion. Why are you delivering guiding advice in the first place? If it’s about you, you’re already setting yourself up for conflict and poor outcomes. If it’s about scoring points and bringing someone else low, then you’re likely to win the skirmish but lose much more that comes after (that is truly a sucker’s bet). But if you’re coming from a place of caring for the other person (otherwise, why on earth would you have this person on your team??), then not only are you able to use this teaching moment as a chance to build that person up; you are also giving yourself a neuro-chemical reward! …As you so eloquently put it in your post.

    This wisdom isn’t new: Plato and Fredrick Douglas had similar advice, to name just two, well before the science was even invented. But neuroscientists are now proving the wisdom of these sages. I’m reading an ebook on this topic by Rebel Brown, and today we’re posting a TV interview with Dr Ellen Weber of the MITA Center for Brain Research. Both of these sources confirm your message. I’m excited that thought-leaders like the three of you are spreading awareness to the rest of the leadership community.

    …And I can’t wait to read your next awesome post!

  • maria garcia

    Great post jesse!. You bring up some good points, I am still working hard on giving honest feed back without coming across the wrong way. I consider my self a compassionate person, but I’m too honest giving feed back, and this sometimes is view as rude and unappreciative when its not the case. Number one is very important to me, because I need to give feed back when I’m calmer and not emotionally. I would definitely agree with Ted, we must give feed back from a place of compassion its beneficial for the receiver and the deliverer.
    thanks so much for this post it comes at the right time in my life thanks,

  • Hi Jesse

    It has been long said that what separate a human from others animals is our ability to use thought to overcome emotion or instinct. Now science is revealing what parts of the brain actually do it. Which hopefully ends people excuses for being thoughtless. A leader in the most traditional view was a person who lived to protect and serve their community. Unfortunately those basic ideas have been perverted through history. Thankfully today there are a group of writers and thinkers that are bring us back to the true basics about life and leadership.

    We can control our actions and through thought can act in a compassionate and supportive manner. Hopefully overtime we will see leadership returning to an attitude of service and away from an attitude of self-service and greed.

  • Awesome Jesse – spot on! Fact is the only person you can really change is yourself! Self awareness (of how your brain functions) would give you the ability to communicate at all levels effectively at all times but it takes (self) control …. and knowledge of why you do, what you do, the way you do it!

  • Great job, Jesse!

    How interesting is to understand about our behavior and actions. I confess that is a hard exercise, sometimes. But, day by day we have the opportunities to learn about ourselves.
    Nowadays, my job is to help some leaders in my classes how to find the better way on his teamwork. I`ve learned that there is always a person to discover. In each one of us, there is a person that is suffering and deserve to know how to make good choices.
    Thanks so much for your post.

    Best regards from Brazil.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Thanks, Rodrigo. I hope this can be helpful to you in your classes. Your comment about there’s always a person to discover reminds me of a quote attributed to Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

  • Jesse: Great post. You may also be interested in my summary of “Brain Rules” at http://bit.ly/1aAtyaN
    Keep up the great work. Doug

  • Great post Jesse. I highlighted these 3 brain sci Lessons in a 12/31 Leadership post on my blog. All three meshed with four Lessons (from a Deb Mills-Scofield piece) very nicely. Happy New Year & Keep up the good work!

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Thanks, Greg. I’m glad you found it helpful. I checked out your blog post and thought you did a nice job with it and that it did mesh nicely with Deb’s piece. Best wishes to you!

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