Are You Growing Your Brain?


Roshan Thiran


5 min read

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The best leaders have healthy brains

A few years ago, whilst I was teaching leadership in Switzerland, I met brain researcher Terry Small and he posed a very interesting question: What is the most important part of your body with regards to leadership?

I immediately answered “the brain.” Our emotions, intellect, knowledge and expertise all reside in the brain. And he answered “Absolutely” and posed a second question: “So if your brain is critical to leadership success, how many books on the brain have you read?”

I had to pause for a second as I knew he was right. If the brain is so important to leadership, why aren’t leaders more interested in knowing how to develop and grow a healthy brain? Thus began my exploration on the brain and leadership.

The brain is involved in everything we do. In Primal Leadership: Realising the Power of Emotional Intelligence , Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee demonstrate that leaders selected solely on the basis of IQ and technical ability lack the necessary emotional competencies to lead effectively. They argue that high performing leaders have both high EQ and IQ levels. Both are directly connected and controlled by the brain. The limbic system in the brain controls your emotions, impulses and drives whilst your neocortex is the part in your brain that IQ, knowledge and learning is managed.

Human emotions are brain-controlled and spread charismatically whenever people are near each other, even with no verbal contact. When emotionally engaging leaders were observed, their followers harmonised most readily with the leader’s ideas, and ultimately “caught” the leader’s mood. High-energy and positive leaders like Sir Richard Branson, effortlessly transfer their optimism to their followers whilst the negative ones wear down their employees.

On the other hand, when leaders perceive a threat or are under stress, their brain acts differently and an “Amygdala” hijack happens where they act on impulse instead of reason. A person with high emotional intelligence vetoes this hijack but an “untrained” brain will result in an “Amygdala hijack” and a reactionary response.

Wang Laboratories, a top technology company in the 80s was destroyed by a bad decision that was highly emotional by its then leader, An Wang. A leader’s ability to manage emotions is critical as emotions can compromise, or sabotage your ability to make effective decisions.

Previously, I wrote about “gut feeling” and how our life’s wisdom and experiences are stored by the brain and retrieved when we face an emergency complex situation. World-class leaders learn to develop their “gut feel” by managing an emotional brain part called the basal ganglia. Interestingly, our brain actually gets better the more we use it. The same with our bodies – the more you use it, the longer it lasts.

Since 1986, scientist David Snowdon studied 678 nuns of Mankato, many of whom lived past 100 years – painstakingly collecting data, testing them and dissecting their brains after death. Among the findings of this nun study are:

  • An active intellectual life prolongs your brain’s lifespan and protects you from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Those who express the most positive emotions in their language live the longest.

  • The brain retains the capacity to change and grow stronger even in elderly people.

  • Those who teach and are constantly challenging their minds live longer than folks who don’t.

  • Strong bonding develops positive emotional intelligence which leads to a sharper mind.

After their deaths, scientists were shocked to see that parts of the brains that generally wither with age did not become so in the brains of these Mankato nuns. How did these nuns manage to remain sharp and productive even after 100 years?

Researchers have found that intellectual stimulation of only 20 minutes a day can spur new neuron growth. Brain exercises were the norm for these nuns, who lived by the principle that “an idle mind is the devil’s playground”. They wrote spiritual meditations in their journals, letters to their politicians and doggedly challenged themselves with quizzes, puzzles, and debates on current events.

Your brain has the capacity to continue to develop and grow. A growing brain keeps mastering the competencies of leadership – everything from self-confidence and decision-making to empathy and persuasion to running effective meetings – till it gets it right. Our brain thrives on change and challenges. But in most cases, people resist change because of the pain of change.

The brain’s main function is to keep you alive and resist pain. Generally, the brain pushes back when instructed what to do. This is attributed to homeostasis, the movement of organisms towards equilibrium and away from instructed change. On the other hand, your brain will release an adrenaline-like rush of neurotransmitters when you figure out how to solve a problem yourself rather than being told how to solve it by others.

When I returned to Malaysia years ago and helped in the turnaround of an organisation, one of the methods we deployed was to conduct mini-action labs where employees were given the opportunity to solve a problem, recommend and implement the solutions. Within a short period, there was high engagement and the turnaround was swift and effortless, driven by the employees.

Compare that with numerous attempted turnarounds when a commanding CEO comes in and dictates the terms of the change. There is usually huge resistance to the change and failure. Leaders who leverage on brain-power will understand the need for engagement and employee participation in any change effort.

Our emotional brain has neural pathways that pump out streams of good feelings when a goal is accomplished and reduces feelings of worry or frustration in achieving the target. Great leaders use this in their change efforts too. Many leaders still hold on to the old adage of leadership by command-and-control. Instead, empathy and social intelligence is the way forward. A newly-discovered brain neuron, called the mirror neuron, enables leaders to learn empathy.

Mirror neurons, discovered accidentally by Italian neuroscientists monitoring a monkey’s brain, show that the brain has neurons that mirror what others do. “When we consciously or unconsciously detect someone else’s emotions through their actions, our mirror neurons reproduce those emotions. Collectively, these neurons create an instant sense of shared experience.” (Goleman/Boyatzis)

Additionally, mirror neurons enable leaders’ emotions and actions to be mirrored by their followers. This role-modelling was never truly understood until the mirror neuron discovery. So, a leader’s action is more important than his words. The brain thinks in pictures; not words.

Finally, if you really have no time to develop and grow your brain, the least you can do is keep your brain healthy. Small’s research concludes that by just eating a few prunes a day you “reduce the chances of Alzheimer’s disease by 92%”. The brain is 80% water so drinking lots of water keeps it hydrated and listening to Baroque music increases your ability to learn by 25% to 400% (and I hope you are reading Small’s weekly Brain Bulletin in the pullout – he provides great ‘brain tips’ to help you have a great ‘leadership’ brain weekly!).

Like you, I am on this new journey of discovering the power of the brain in leadership. For starters, why not invest 20 minutes daily of doing something outside your comfort zone? At least you will grow some new neurons!

To watch the “Be a Leader” video episode on Growing your Brain, click play:

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