To lead people we first need to be able to lead ourselves. Leading with the brain in mind helps us bring out the best in ourselves so we can do the same with others.
Understanding how the human brain works and how we function at our best is both fascinating and critical if we want to continue to grow and improve as leaders.
If we take some of the insights emerging from neuroscience and add what we know already and are discovering about emotional intelligence, positive psychology and leadership, we can improve our effectiveness, productivity and performance as leaders. My eBook on Leading with the Brain in Mind integrates some of this new research.
Here are five strategies to help you and your brain perform at its best and become a more mindful and effective leader.
1. Keep your brain fuelled
Your brain needs fuel—certain neurochemicals that give you the energy to function at your best. When we feel threatened, uncertain or exhausted from a day of complex decisions, our thinking processes are reduced. When we feel upbeat after receiving great feedback or bonding with our team, our brains release energy that allow us to make good decisions, think creatively or try new behaviour.
Think of a fuel gauge for your brain. If your fuel is low its not the best time to make a big strategic decision, have a difficult conversation or lengthy planning session. When your fuel is high, it’s a great time to get started on a new project or idea, knowing you can last the distance and get great results.
Schedule meetings that require big picture thinking and decisive action earlier in the day when the brain has the most fuel. Boost your team’s energy and performance by asking everyone to share one really good thing that happened recently.
2. Look after your body
Our brains and bodies form an integrated system and failing to take care of it may lead to poor performance and decrease our health and wellbeing.
Diet, sleep and exercise are all vital ingredients to refuel your brain and perform at your best. We know sleep is needed for rest and rejuvenation; it’s likely to have other important functions. For example, REM sleep appears to regulate emotions and memory. Too many leaders short-change themselves (and the people around them) by failing to get enough sleep.
A mindfulness practice can help the brain regain focus and the body relax. This can be as simple as a five-minute ritual to start the day. Try a walking meditation. What’s important is choosing an activity you enjoy and that motivates you.
Any activity that generates positive emotions will help. When we feel positive, our brains perform better and our repertoire for thinking and acting is broadened and built. Positive emotions can also undo the effect of negative emotions, creating a buffer that builds resilience and resources over time.
3. Choose the right emotions
Consider the tasks you have to perform in the day and check in with your emotions. You can proactively generate the emotions you want yourself and others to feel to suit different situations.
This is one of the best uses of emotional intelligence and self-regulation. By understanding how emotions change and the differences between emotional states, you can regulate how you use them to get better outcomes. Even anger can motivate you to take up a challenge or right a wrong. If you dial down the intensity level and combine it with compassion you are more likely to avoid conflict and keep relationships strong.
Do you need to engage your team or motivate them to adopt new behaviours? What emotions would make them more likely to listen and take action? Do you want their input in a brainstorming session? High-energy positive emotions inspire action and a lot of new ideas. Are you due for a reflective coaching or mentoring session? Try a mini mindfulness exercise or take 20 slow breaths to achieve a state of calm before entering the room. Or will you be reviewing a report that requires care and detailed attention? Neutral and slightly negative emotions tend to get higher quality results.
4. Find time to imagine
As leaders we need to be creative and open to new ideas. Innovation is inspired by imagination, the ability to recognise patterns, form new concepts and ideas. Moments of insight—the Aha! or Eureka effect—tend to occur when our brain is in a resting state.
Breakthrough shifts in perspective happen when our mind is wandering freely rather than focusing on a task or concentrating on how to solve a problem. Our conscious mind may take the credit for our big ideas, yet our best solutions can come to us when we are in the shower or daydreaming aimlessly.
You can trigger moments of creative insight by generating the right state of mind. This can mean easing your concentration a bit, shifting your body to break the space, or going for a walk. Try journaling, doodling or another creative pursuit that encourages you to process thoughts non-logically. Positive emotions also help.
5. Get curious
Curiosity is a way of learning and stimulating your brain every day. Brains like novelty and staying open and curious keeps our brain active and engaged.
Curiosity makes us more psychologically flexible, a critical capacity for leaders in complex uncertain environments. With curiosity you can approach new experiences, people and events with mindful awareness—the positive and beautiful as well as the challenging and upsetting. If you dial up your curiosity, it allows you to dial down anxiety.
By getting curious about others, your own emotions and biases fade into the background. A curious mindset helps you put aside your convictions and even your need for certainty to make room for other people and their perspectives.
There are many more ways to harness your brain’s performance potential and develop mindful habits as a leader. Remember that reshaping habits takes time. We need to put awareness, effort and commitment into making it happen. Managing our brains day to day in simple ways helps us move positively and productively toward these goals.
Download my free eBook for more brain-based leadership strategies.