using science-based executive coaching

leadership and the brain’s design

We see intellect and clear thinking as the characteristics that get someone in the leadership door. Without those fundamental abilities, no entry is allowed. However, intellect alone will not make a leader. The neural systems responsible for the intellect and for the emotions are separate, but they have intimately interwoven connections. This brain circuitry, that interweaves thought and feeling, provides the neural basis of being intelligent about emotions. And, despite the great value that business culture often places on an intellect free of emotion, our emotions are, in a very real sense, more powerful than our intellect. In moments of emergency, our emotional centres – the limbic brain – commander the rest of the brain. There’s good reason for this special potency of emotions – they are crucial for survival.

We should take care not to make the intellect our God. It has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead, it can only serve.
– Albert Einstein

when the rational part of our brain shuts down

From birth, human beings seek a sense of psychological safety. Our sense of safety is threatened when we experience normal but difficult emotions such as fear, anger, resentment, guilt, jealousy, envy and shame. These feelings are hard to tolerate especially if they are not how we think we should feel. At times our sense of safety is sufficiently threatened to trigger a particularly strong defensive response. The amygdala, part of the limbic brain, scans the environment and reacts if it perceives a threat. When triggered, it sends a message to other parts of the brain, which releases stress hormones, flooding the body with adrenaline, cortisol and other chemicals. We then react involuntarily, the need to protect ourselves takes over, and the prefrontal cortex – the rational, thinking part of our brain – shuts down. When triggered in this way, our ability to listen, reflect and plan is all reduced, emotion is in the driving seat and our behaviour becomes impulsive and unskillful.

how to remain resourceful and constructive

Modern neuroscience has helped us identify three effective leadership styles and their underlying emotional and behavioural patterns. Each pattern has it its own specific set of closely linked functional and dysfunctional behaviours. Leaders move back and forth along this spectrum between functional and dysfunctional forms of leadership. That is to say, that all leaders will lead well in a particular way and lead badly in a particular way. Leaders can learn to identify the key triggers that push them in the dysfunctional direction. In turn, this may help them to develop practical new strategies for avoiding these triggers, managing their feelings more effectively when they cannot be avoided, and remaining at their most resourceful and constructive, even under pressure.

self-awareness is a factor in how well a business will do

Overall, the climate – how people feel about working in an organisation – can account for 20 to 30 percent of business performance. Getting the best out of people pays off in hard results. If climate drives business results, what drives climate? Roughly 50 to 70 percent of how employees perceive their organisation’s climate can be traced to the actions of one person: the leader. More than anyone else, the boss creates the conditions that directly determine people’s ability to work well. Breakthroughs in brain research show why leaders’ moods and actions have enormous impact on those they lead. In short, leaders’ emotional states and actions do affect how the people they lead will feel and therefore perform. How well leaders manage their moods and affect everyone else’s moods, then, becomes not just a private matter, but a factor in how well a business will do.

our capacity to develop

What we know for sure about the brain is that it is not static. The brain can and does create new neural networks and pathways all the time, pruning ones that are no longer useful and strengthening ones that are often used. This is referred to as our brain’s plasticity. By changing our thinking, we can change the neural pathways in the brain and create new feedback loops even for deeply rooted beliefs. By actively working with new ways of thinking, choosing new behaviours and practicing them often enough during the coaching process, new neural networks can be formed and, thus, your performance can develop and improve.