Previously published on Forbes
As the calendar turns to a new year, leaders often have wonderful intentions. Returning from the holiday break re-energized and ready for a new year, full of new thinking, new ideas and hope for productive collaboration with their team and colleagues. That’s the best way of approaching a New Year—bringing forward optimism, gratitude and encouragement for self and others.
But the reality is that most leaders may not know how to bring anything like this forward. They are more likely to be run by habitual thinking patterns, moods and emotions, fears and concerns. So many are living in stress. Covid-19 and new variants plague the world. Collectively, we continue to navigate difficult social and racial justice issues, the political process can be infuriating, many remain reluctant home-school teachers, turning on the news to see the present-day impact of climate change and the list goes on.
How does one shift all of that to create a brighter outcome? Leadership, after all, is the act of creation. Of making something from nothing. Of moving toward a future that hasn’t yet arrived.
What the Best Leaders Can Teach Us
The best leaders are unflappable. As David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work,” says, “They can observe their own thinking, and thus can change how they think. These people have better cognitive control and thus can access a quieter mind on demand.”
That means they can keep their feet on the ground while still opening their hearts and minds toward the future. They recover quickly from personal and professional difficulties. They certainly don’t let their mood dominate the day. They are more curious than certain. And even though they very much personally care, they don’t seem to take difficult feedback or events personally.
In many ways, we can learn more from these extraordinary leaders. They still receive heartbreaking news, foundational changes in strategy that impact their entire team, betrayal by a colleague, a key team member's resignation, or the closure of a beloved product line. Somehow, they manage to bounce back in remarkable time.
How Your Brain Affects The Way You Lead
To further understand these leaders and what kind of magic they employ to remain so steady and stable in the face of crushing events, let’s turn to the field of neuro-leadership and the pioneering work of Rock, who explains, “Understanding your brain increases your effectiveness at work. This happens because with knowledge of your brain, you make different decisions moment to moment.”
Let’s take a minute to talk about the human brain. Well, three of them, actually.
The Reptilian brain is the oldest part of the brain and sits just at the brainstem at the top of the spine in the base of the skull. It has three simple responses: fight, flight or freeze. It is highly reactive to the environment and what seems to be a threat. But it also blocks one’s ability to plan and create.
When a leader lives in fear and stress, they are living in survival. And when they’re in survival, they are operating with the reptilian brain. What does it mean for leaders or partners or parents or citizens if they lead with this old brain? They will most likely react to what’s happening around them in rather primitive ways. They’ll be focused on reducing threats (whether real or perceived) to themselves and their team.
The Limbic brain, also called the emotional or feeling brain, connects emotions to experiences. It also creates long-term memories. One remembers events, in large part, due to the emotions felt during them.
The limbic brain manufactures and releases chemicals in the form of peptides. This chemical cocktail has a specific signature that reflects the emotions you are experiencing in the moment. Emotions signal the body to record the event chemically.
The Neocortex is the newest and most evolved part of your brain. The human brain reached its present-day level of evolutionary complexity 250,000 to 300,000 years ago. At that time, our ancestors experienced a 20% increase in the mass of the thinking, reasoning areas of the human brain. We all got a bigger brain.
Dr. Joe Dispenza, author of “Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind,” writes, “The seat of our conscious awareness, the neocortex houses our free will, our thinking and our capacity to learn, reason and rationalize.”
With the neocortex comes all kinds of goodies. We can calm ourselves down. We can discern friend from foe. We can catch ourselves and change. We can learn and integrate new ideas. We can talk ourselves out of irrational responses.
Sounds good, right? So let’s look at what can we do to start this new year off using your neocortex.
Kicking Your Rational Brain into Gear
Here are two things leaders can use right away to regain calm no matter what’s going on around (or within) you:
1. Label emotions. It’s been said, “Name it to tame it.” This can move a leader out of the emotion and engage the neocortex, the rational, thinking part of the brain.
Labeling—either verbally or in writing—can create calm in the body and mind, and from this calmer state, one will be able to see more opportunities, solutions, and paths forward. In his book “Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation,” Daniel Siegel explains, “Writing in a journal activates the narrator function of our minds. Studies have suggested that simply writing down our account of a challenging experience can lower physiological reactivity and increase our sense of well-being.”
Task yourself with labeling or naming emotions throughout the day, telling the truth as it is experienced: “bored,” “frustrated,” “disappointed.” It can help shift out of a negative emotional state.
2. Challenge your perspective: The best CEOs can look at circumstances through a variety of lenses. In other words, they can shift perspectives with ease. In this way, they keep an open mind and can be influenced by others who held a different perspective. They do not embrace certainty and often enter the uncomfortable place of not knowing. They are curious, open learners.
Challenge a perspective by simply setting down the story about a situation. Or making up a new, more empowering story. Or, if one is brave, they can challenge their perspective by inviting others into conversation and dialogue. Invite dissent.
Both of these strategies or tools may seem simple enough to take on as a practice for a day, a week, a month or even a year, if you can maintain that kind of focus. Make it part of your routine to shift your thinking through labeling and perspective-shifting. You, your brain and your leadership will be better for it.