An elusive construct, neuroleadership has caught the attention of the corporate world, from senior executives looking for ways to strengthen their leadership impact, to individual contributors looking to sharpen the saw on their performance. Regardless of position or profile, neuroleadership is an approach to leadership that can offer benefits to the masses.
There are a host of neuroleadership theories, however, collectively the underlying principal is two-fold: understand how leaders can reach optimal performance through harnessing the empirical evidence in neuroscience AND subsequently identify how these leaders can cultivate optimal performance in those that they lead (formally or informally) through this evidence.
So what does the science say? Our brain, as complex as it is, is also quite simple when it comes to performance. Give it the right fuel, provide it with ample rest, and exercise it through cognitive and physical activities, and it will deliver its best. Scientists have also identified neural pathways and neurotransmitters (hormones) that foster our ability to focus, determine sources for motivation and reward, and drive curiosity/innovation. Some of these same pathways are also responsible for our executive functioning, self-regulation and emotion regulation ~ all essential skills when it comes to leadership and overall performance at work.
Let's break this down:
FUEL: The latest evidence1 confirms that what we eat has a direct influence on our cognition and our emotions. Certain types of food also increase our ability to concentrate, problem solve and store memories whereas others IE transfats* and sugars ~ have demonstrated2 their potential to impair these abilities. A mediterranean diet (rich in whole grains, fruit, leafy greens, beans, nuts olive oil, small portions of chicken and fish) has been linked to positive brain function, higher energy levels and correspondingly decreases in cognitive decline and cellular ageing. Hydration is also a key component when it comes to the brains performance: a mere 1% dehydration has been correlated3 with adverse affects on cognitive performance.
REST: John Lehrer writes in his book - Imagine: How Creativity Works - that without brain-breaks, we inhibit the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs. It is also known that the area in our brain primarily responsible for decision making, focus and self-regulation (the prefrontal cortex) has limited energy; it requires rest in order to perform. According to Ferris Jabr in his systematic review, "downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life". Furthermore, when our brains are at rest, our memories are being consolidated and our neural pathways are being reinforced.
Top Hacks for Resting Your Brain
Take a nap (a 7-10 minute nap can increase alertness for up to 3 hours)4
Meditate (decreases activity in prefrontal cortex which increases focus, EQ and executive functioning)5
Let your mind wander (increases ability to solve problems)6
EXERCISE: Increasing blood-flow to the brain through exercise not only provides the brain with more oxygen, but it also releases a variety of hormones related to our motivation and reward systems. The best type of exercise is typically any form that gets your heart pumping (aerobic), however, certain dance styles have been shown to provide additional benefit due to both the physical and mental demands. Aside from oxygen and hormone activation, aerobic exercise also creates BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) which according to Dr. John Ratey, keeps our brain cells young and prepares our brains for neuroplasticity.
NEURAL PATHWAYS & NEUROTRANSMITTERS: A neural pathway is a network of brain cells that communicate through neurotransmitters (hormones that initiate communication within brain cells). Scientists have discovered7 a reward and reinforcement system/pathway which leads to motivation through the release of dopamine (feel-good neurotransmitter). Dopamine reinforces the behaviour through the pleasure feeling it provides and also activates memory so that the behaviour can be repeated, as long as it takes the right pathway. At work, the brain can be rewarded with dopamine through things such as incremental goals and positive feedback. Founder of the Neuroleadership Institute David Rock has developed the SCARF8 model which emphasises the brains inclination towards reward and away from threat, creating self and social awareness. Within an organisation leaders should seek to provide individuals with autonomy, choice, certainty, relatedness and have a corporate sense of fairness -all of which contribute to engagement, motivation and discretionary efforts.
In closing, developing a simple awareness about the brain, nourishing the brain as suggested above with the right fuel, rest & exercise, and creating space for reflection and attention training (IE mindfulness), enables leaders to make better decisions, stay calm under pressure, and maximise their leadership impact.
*Trans fats are unsaturated fats that act like saturated fats and can be found in high levels in foods such as pastries, frozen pizza, commercial cakes and biscuits, deep fried foods
1 Gomez-Pinalla, F. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. National Rev Neuroscience, 2008. 568-578.
2 Bowman et al. Nutrient biomarker patterns, cognitive function and MRI measures of brain again. Neurology, 2012. 241-249.
3 Lieberman, HR. Hydration and cognition: a critical review and recomendations for future research. Journal of American College of Nutrition, 2007. 555s-561s.
4 Lovato, N & Lack, L. The effects of napping on cognitive functioning. Prog Brain Res, 2010. 185: 155-66.
5 Brewer et al. Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. PNAS, 2011. v 108 n 50, 20254-20259.
6 Baird et al. Inspired by distraction: Mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. 2013 APS XX (x) 1-6.
7 Sisodia, V. What is the neural basis of motivation, 2015. QUORA.
8 Rock, D. SCARF: a brain based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Neuroleadership Journal, 2008. Issue 1, pp 1-9.