Fearless Leadership – Neuroscience Helps us Understand our Common Stress at Work – Making us Better Leaders

Amidst the Global Financial Crisis, fear prevails and plays havoc with our minds. Those of us in the workplace who can use our mind to recognise fear for what it is: False Evidence Appearing Real, are able to transform the emotional energy of fear into courage and create an organisation changing platform that sees us concentrating on moving forward despite the obstacles. Those who cannot accept and convert their fear into courage will instead resort to hunkering down, conserving cash, and disposing assets – and these assets are often some of the organisation’s best talent.

In leadership development, we use a four-part model to teach the art of ‘conscious choice’– reminding leaders that they have the neuroscience-proven ability to choose their mental response to any stimulus no matter how stressful it seems at first. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived a concentration camp, taught us this most effectively in his book Man’s Search for Meaning when he wrote so beautifully that “… man’s last freedom will always be to choose the state of his mind regardless to any situation.”

The first part of this model is about recognising work situations that provoke fear responses in our brain in which our minds trick us to believing we are under life-and-death threat. David Rock, author of Our Brains at Work, coined the term ‘SCARF’ to describe status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness issues in which our brains experience fear threats that simulate the fear threats of being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger. Our untrained brains are not always capable of distinguishing the typical work stressors with the real life- and-death threats, and as a result, our untrained minds and bodies can experience the adrenaline and cortisol surges of the death threat on a daily basis.

The second part of the model has us learning how we typically respond to such stimuli at work – our signature ‘stress response’. Each of us has a particular version of autopilot behaviour when we don’t use ‘choice’. Some of us get aggressive (‘fight’); some of us escape the scene to avoid conflict (‘flee’) and some of us just hunker down and try to make as little noise as possible (‘freeze’). Consciously catching ourselves in the act of responding to threat and observing our patterns in breath, heart rate, and body posture is critical in training our minds that there is a different way of responding.

The third part of the model teaches us the neuroscientific ‘veto power’. From the time any ‘life and death’ stimulus reaches our bodies, it takes 0.3 seconds for our conscious mind to register it as a potential threat and then 0.2 seconds for it to choose to respond. This 0.2 seconds is where we can veto our automatic threat response, recognising that the stimulus is actually not a life-and- death threat, but rather a typical work stress that we can deal with through the rational part of our mind. Within this veto power, we can virtually press the pause button to break the stimulus-response cycle that we find ourselves normally falling into in typical stress situations and choose a more rational response. This is leadership.

The fourth part of the model shows that this choice mechanism gets easier the more ‘fit’ the mind is. The rise of the popularity of the term ‘mindfulness’ is a call for us to invest more time in the health of our minds as well as our bodies. Through such technologies as functional MRI, we can see how the brain can change itself with mental fitness training. For example, we are learning much from the ancient practices of meditation by observing Buddhist monks under functional MRI – who are showing us that brains can be trained to deal so much more effectively with stress and instead be wired for empathy, intuition and creativity.

At the end of the day, leadership is truly synonymous with conscious intent. The art of being aware of your brain’s machinations and how you can control these machinations with your mind is quintessential in the art of leadership. “It is the brain that puts out the call, but it is the mind that decides what to listen to,” as neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz argues. “We have no control over the messages the brain sends you—we only have veto power about what we act on.”

Perhaps we can draw comfort from one of the greatest leaders in times of difficulty, Winston Churchill, who reminds us from the past that “an optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity.” We believe that great leaders choose optimism.

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