Most leaders take their greatest asset for granted. It isn’t intelligence, creativity or education; it is the power of the brain — specifically the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that was the last to evolve and is the least efficient. But it’s where all the really important stuff happens.
What is commonly thought of as executive functioning — planning, logistics, visualization, judgment and decision-making — all happens in the prefrontal cortex as well as the critical aspects of emotional intelligence, self-regulation and control. This part of the brain is often referred to by neuroscientists as “the brain’s braking system,” because people whose brains are tired will find it noticeably harder to inhibit instinctual behaviors.
Success at work depends on one’s ability to behave oneself or, for that matter, leaders managing their emotional states and what they choose to exhibit at any given moment. Lisa Doyle, vice president of learning and development at Lowe’s Cos., defines this important “commander’s calm” as “being able to stay cool even during the most stressful, volatile moments. Those who can maintain it decide who they need to be to manage a situation and rise to the occasion, no matter what.”
How Healthy is Your Prefrontal Cortex?
Many people don’t realize there is a direct connection between the state of the prefrontal cortex and the ability to self-regulate.Good intentions, a strong character and willpower are a great start, but advances in neuroscienceresearch make it clear they are often not enough to ensure cooler heads prevail under stress.
Coaches have long championed the notion of “extreme self-care” — that taking care of yourself is vital to high performance. Although this concept has been widely accepted by athletes, it has been pooh-poohed by executives as touchy-feely and seen as optional — until now. An avalanche of fresh research from neuroscientists, who have new tools to measure what happens in the brain, shows that taking care of one’s brain is critical to high functioning.
The brain accounts for just 2 percent of our body weight, yet it absorbs 25 percent of the oxygen and 70 percent of the glucose we consume. Every decision made, from the mundane “Should I have oatmeal or eggs for breakfast?” to the significant “Should we restructure the department?” uses up the brain’s resources. The prefrontal cortex is like a gas tank that gets filled with rest, sleep and food, and is rapidlydepleted with use.
But the kicker is, when the brain is out of gas, one is not aware of it. Cars have gauges that make it clear when gas is low. There may even be an alarm when gas is dangerously low. The brain has no such indicator. At the gym, it is easy to identify when a muscle group is exhausted and essentially nonfunctional, but when the brain is tired, it goes unnoticed until an unintended word or behavior emerges.
Executives who behave as if their brain is a finite resource and a precious commodity know they need to take care of it. Jenny Dearborn, chief learning officer at SAP, recalls a former colleague — an executive vice president at another company and her executive sponsor — who was “a machine of productivity. Calm, consistent, never raised his voice. Other colleagues still refer to him as their best boss to this day. He didn’t talk about it, but those of us who worked closely with him knew that he was extraordinarily religious about his habits.
“He ran every day at the same time and was methodical about his food. He really had the discipline of a professional athlete, and I never once saw him lose his cool.” This, she said, “was in stark contrast to his second in command who was an adrenaline junkie, seemed to live on 5-Hour Energy shots, and would get jittery, shaky and frightening toward the end of the day. Nobody trusted him, and he ended up leaving the company.”
Dearborn, an athlete who is married to an athlete and parent to four athletic children, works closely with senior executives on how they can manage themselves for optimal performance.
Take Care of You, Take Care of Your Brain
All of the standard rules for taking care of oneself apply to taking care of the brain, although wanting to use brain potential to its fullest may be a more compelling reason to be healthy than wanting to look and feel better. The first rules for brain care are the standard trifecta everybody knows: sleep, food and exercise.
• Sleep is not optional. There are no rewards for skipping it, and there is a high cost to sleep deficit over time. Neuroscientists still don’t really understand what happens during sleep that makes it so critical,but they know people who get the right amount of sleep make better decisions and are better able to control themselvesunder stress. The amount of sleep required varies for each individual — anywhere from six to nine hours a night — but each person has an ideal amount for his or her optimal performance.
• Food matters. The diet industry has one thing right: Without glucose, it becomes impossible for the brain to say no to the wrong foods, which is a form of inhibition. Without glucose, all forms of inhibition become harder. It is not a lapse of character when a harried professional arrives home, having skipped lunch and sat through eight straight hours of meetings, with the intention of preparing a healthy meal and enjoying some time with the family — only to find themselves ripping open a bag of corn chips and yelling at their teenager about taking out the trash. The people who do best eat mostly protein and whole foods, which are slowly converted to glucose on a regular basis to maintain a steady flow for the brain.
• Movement is essential. Does anyone really need to hear this again? Sitting all day is killing people at the same rate as smoking. But that statement, however shocking, may not be nearly as persuasive as last April’s research out of Stanford University, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, which showed that subjects increased creative problem-solving capability by a minimum of 50 percent while walking instead of sitting. So, it isn’t necessary to go to the gym, take classes, lift weights or run; going for a walk will increase brain power.
Assuming executives are already taking good care of themselves, there are other tactics to consider for staying sharp all day.
• Challenging work should come first.Creative problem-solving, brainstorming and making decisions uses up brainpower. Strategic planning or any activity that involves thinking about thefuture, guessing about the way events might transpire and creating contingencies exhausts the prefrontal cortex. It is akin to driving fast with the air conditioning on full blast in terms of the drain. This kind of work should be done when the brain is as fresh as possible, and should involve plenty of breaks and high-quality snacks.
• Critical decisions must be respected. Decisions should never be made in haste. If there is significant doubt, the old adage “sleep on it” holds. In his book “Willpower,” Roy Baumeister wrote that people known for making consistently good decisions aren’t necessarily smarter than the rest of us; they simply know when not to make a decision.
• Stop before it is too late. When the prefrontal cortex is tired, there is no obvious indication. By the time it becomes obvious, it can be too late. Look for subtle indications: a slightly increased sensitivity to light and sound; perhaps a somewhat heightened emotional state. Most people miss the signals. The even-keeled executive knows when to take a break and reschedule a potential emotionally loaded conversation. Far better to defer a meeting than to say something regrettable.
• Plan for tomorrow tonight. Resource management is key. By the time the average person gets to the office, that person has already made a number of decisions: What to wear, what to eat, what route to take to work? Fill the gas tank now or later? Stop for coffee, latte or cappuccino? Each decision taps the brain’s precious resources. To start off as fresh as possible, it makes sense to plan for the next day the night before. Laying out the wardrobe, planning breakfast, deciding the route to work. Make all the small decisions when the cost isn’t so high.
Creating an environment in which everyone thrives begins at the top. Leaders can be inspirational role models by managing themselves and their workday with optimal care for their mostprecious resource.