This post was co-authored by Cathleen Clerkin, Marian Ruderman and Carol Connolly. Read more about CCL’s research on neuroscience and leadership in “Leadership Development Beyond Competencies: Moving to a Holistic Approach.”

Oftentimes, people think about leadership development as a to-do list (earn MBA, acquire negotiation skills, practice public speaking, understand office politics, put in the hours…). Check off enough boxes and you earn the title of being a ‘Leader’. Check off a few more, and you might even earn the title of being a ‘Good Leader’. But leadership is much more than a list of credentials and behaviors. Checking off the boxes is a start, but it will never make you an outstanding leader. In order to be outstanding, leaders need to understand what is happening in their own minds.

leadership and neuroscience

WHY the mind matters to leadership.

Think of what makes a good basketball player. There are lots of people who can make a basket now and then. But to be truly outstanding, you have to be able to make baskets nearly every time, from different angles, and under extreme pressure. And any decent basketball player will tell you that under those circumstances, the game becomes more psychological than physical.

Leadership is the same way. To reach our full potential as leaders, we must turn our focus inward and understand who we are and how our minds work in order to gain more control over our thoughts, minds, bodies and emotions. This internal self-awareness, in turn, is what gives leaders the power and strength to make tough decisions and excel under pressure. It is easier and more effective to lead when your mind is attentive, clear, and open to alternatives.

WHAT do leaders need to know about the mind?

Just as leaders can learn to speak and act more effectively, leaders can learn to think, reflect, and even feel in ways that make them more effective as well. Renowned psychiatrist Dan Siegel considers the ability to tune into our mind and the minds of others the basis for emotional and social intelligence and the key to learning, personal growth, and transformation.

At the Center for Creative Leadership, we believe there are three basic elements of the mind that leaders need to better appreciate to become outstanding—circuitry, inner content, and conscious engagement. These elements individually and collectively influence and are influenced by our behaviors and thus are vital to how we act and perform as leaders.

  • Circuitry: The first element is circuitry. This is the physical, chemical, and neurological functioning of our bodies. Our circuitry is what wakes us up in the morning, what makes our hearts race after we’ve exercised, and what gives us a rush of adrenaline after we’ve done something daring.
  • Inner Content: The second element is the inner content of the mind. This includes our emo­tions, inner dialogue, and self-perceptions. These inner experiences define our relationships with ourselves, as well as shape our beliefs and emotional reactions to thoughts and situations.
  • Conscious Engagement: The third element is our conscious engagement with our minds—the ability to observe, modify, and regulate mental processes. Our circuitry and inner content flow constantly, continually, and often automatically. However, with awareness and practice, we can learn to direct these processes and gain some level of control over our minds and bodies.

HOW do these elements affect leadership?

These three elements make up everything that goes on in our minds, influencing everything we do. Before leaders act, speak, or make decisions, their minds start working behind the scenes. Here is a brief look at how these elements influence leadership:

  • Circuitry: Our brain chemicals, neurons and nervous system are the hardware that controls much of how we feel and behave. For example, external stimuli can set off hormonal and chemical reactions in our central nervous system, leading to fight-flight-freeze behaviors. This cascade of hormones and chemical reactions can create the experience commonly known as stress and result in a variety of negative psychological and physi­ological reactions. Learning more about circuitry is a great way for leaders to better understand how they react under pressure and what triggers a stress reaction.
  • Inner Content: Our inner content is a big part of our style as a leader, because it influences how we process information, what we like and don’t like, and how we see ourselves both now and in the future. For example, think back to a leadership situation that didn’t go well. Chances are, you still remember exactly how it felt, and what you thought at the time. These emotions and thoughts shape how we see ourselves and our abilities. They also determine, at least in part, how we will act in the future, such as which opportunities we seek out or avoid, or how we make tough decisions. Understanding how our inner content influences decisions and actions can help leaders think more clearly and consider other perspectives.
  • Conscious Engagement: Leaders who want to be outstanding must learn to be consciously engaged with their minds because conscious engagement allows individuals to choose a more mindful response to difficult situations. It gives leaders the ability to “hit the pause button” in a heated situation or take in complex, discordant information more accurately. While we cannot change our past experiences, we can learn to change the influence they have on the present through conscious awareness and active engagement with our inner world.

WHAT IF leaders better understood their minds?

Understanding the mind has the potential to give leaders more control over their thoughts and actions. Learning to become aware and identify sensations, emotions and thought processes helps us to manage them. This is not a quick fix, but with time and dedicated training, leaders can develop the ability to tune into thoughts, emotions, and inner processes to promote healthier physical and psychological responses, and in turn, better leadership.

Think back to the basketball example. Imagine being able to sink baskets most every time under incredible amounts of pressure. No one would be expected to pick up that ability overnight. It takes years, often a lifetime, to be able to exert such control over your body and mind. But at the same time, if you can’t learn to control your body and mind, you will never be able to accomplish such feats. Leadership is no different. If you want to be a leadership globetrotter, you’ve got to start training your mind now.

For those interested in exploring the inner world, there are many ways to start. There is an increasing amount of self-support tools and resources useful to inner work, many of which are available for free online. Here are a few to get you started:

What do you think?  How do your thoughts and mind influence your leadership? What helps you to consciously engage? For more information on our perspective see our white paper “Leadership Development Beyond Competencies: Moving to a Holistic Approach.”


Start typing and press Enter to search