Leading within a college or university can often be hampered by the need to balance multiple competing interests. New insights about the workings of the human brain provide insights into being an effective higher education leader.  In fact, neuroscientists are now exploring ways to put their studies of the brain to work improving leadership of organizations, breaking leaders free from the tug-of-war saga that limits the leadership potential of many.

For many years, the brain was viewed much like a sponge, where it would simply absorb a new stimulus or piece of knowledge, saving it for the user to recall at some later date. Today, through a variety of brain imaging techniques, scientific studies suggest that the brain is a far more complex organ fully capable of a multitude of executive functions, many of which happen as part of our sub-consciousness. In addition, our emotions interact with these “objective” functions in strange and interesting ways. The challenge for leaders, and for all of us as a species, is regulating and managing our emotions long enough to allow the pre-frontal cortex to do its work —  critical thinking and problem solving. If we are guided toward action exclusively by emotions that arise in moments of duress or conflict, those actions can be erratic and not aligned with long-term aspirations. From the most basic of stimuli, harkening back to our five senses, our brains are constantly in a state of competition for attention. The systems that get the most attention are most often those where we have an emotional connection.  Picture a tug-of-war competition with multiple ropes each pulling for their own win simultaneously. This is the challenge of the brain, and a challenge worth examining further for those of us in leadership roles, as we stand to benefit by:

  • Cultivating a positive culture for students, faculty and staff
  • Achieving our goals and change initiatives
  • Encouraging creativity and innovation
  • Enhancing the health and wellness of our team, and
  • Improving faculty and staff engagement and retention rates.

Fabritius and Hagemann (2017), in their recent book The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance offer leaders a roadmap to reap these benefits by avoiding the tug-of-war trap in order to put you and your institution on a more helpful and fulfilled leadership journey1. In the midst of the swirl of higher education change lies opportunity for leaders to reach peak performance by honing in on these five specific areas:

  1. Sharpen Your Focus: To work on sharpening your focus, understand that your brain, and the brains of others are driven to distraction. While the pre-frontal cortex is powerful, it can be distracted. Work on focusing exclusively on the critical task(s) at hand and how they lead toward your ultimate objective. Be mindful of the moments that may derail your focus. Eliminate distractions. Clear your mind and your desk of the things that move your attention away from achieving your objective (s).
  2. Regulate Your Emotions: We cannot stop our emotions, but we can learn to regulate them and what behaviors result from them.  Leaders need to understand how emotions can distract their focus and interfere with executive-level thinking such as problem-solving. They also need to learn how to listen to and use emotions effectively. What is important is taking time to become more self aware of one’s emtotions and learning how to control them as opposed to allowing them to control you.
  3. Address and Manage Your Habits: Habits are a natural way of life and changing them can be hard. The brain has a preference toward creating standardized ways of operating and will naturally resist changes.  Organizational culture similarly tends to gravitate toward norms of behavior and will often work against those norms changing. These organizational habits often mutually reinforce individual habits. Therefore, leading change requires individuals to change their habits, or ways of operating. Changing habits typically entails necessity and/or triggering emotional relevance to the individual. Creating and sustaining change is easier when individuals see the change as having a positive effect on their work and having an emotional connection to it.
  4. Reflection Matters: Reflection is important for all leaders. A leading reason for this is that the the unconscious mind needs time for contemplation. Sleeping does not just allow the mind to rest and reorganize based on the day’s experiences, it also enables the creative side of our brains to sort through large amount of data and see conclusions that we might otherwise miss.  The current trend toward cultivating mindfulness is focused on gaining the benefit from such reflection throughout the day.  Leaders need to provide themselves with time to reflect as well as encourage this of the team’s they lead.
  5. Cultivate Trust: Humans are hardwired to be social beings, it has allowed us to survive for thousands of years. As Simon Sinek relays in his book Leaders Eat Last, humans are designed to ward of threats. Good people in bad environments may do bad things to protect themselves from threats.  In good environments, bad people can do good things because they are socially connected with others.  The leader has a large role to play in whether the environment is “good” or “bad” and much of that is dependent on whether the environment fosters the deployment of our “selfish” or “selfless” chemicals. Selfish chemicals, endorphins and dopamine, reinforce individualistic behaviors by giving one an “runner’s high” for accomplishment or rewarding you for achieving your goals. Selfless chemicals “serotonin and oxytocin” are triggered when we’re feeling valued, deepen friendships or have pride in our work or that of others. In fact, Sinek refers to serotonin as the leadership chemical as it results from looking out for others.  The selfless chemicals are triggered by and support environments of trust, where people come together to work toward the larger good.  The selfish chemicals result from environments the value and reward individualistic behaviors that destroy trust and work against teams.  The behaviors of the leader will signal to others how they should act. In essence, you reap what you sow.

Paying attention to how the brain affects our actions and those of others will greatly help leaders navigate their department, division, or institution through the rapidly changing environment that higher education now confronts.   For further Exploration

  1. Fabritius, F. & Hagemann, H. (2017. The Leading Brain:  Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance.  Penguin Random House, New York, New York.

 

  1. Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly:  How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.  Penguin Random House, New York, New York.

 

  1. Nowack, K. & Zak, P. (2017). The Neuroscience in Building High Performance Trust Cultures.  Talent Economy Quarterly, http://www.talenteconomy.io/2017/02/09/neuroscience-building-trust-cultures/
  2. Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat Last: Why tome teams pull together and others don’t. Portfolio: [Insert Amazon Link]