The Neuroscience of Leadership
There is an area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, through which everything flows: Every idea, every thought, every decision. It is, from my perspective, our consciousness. David Rock, a pioneer in “neuroleadership,” notes that if the amount of information we can hold in this region of the brain at one time is equivalent to, say, a cubic foot, the information we hold in the rest of the brain is equivalent to the Milky Way. Our brains are programmed to use the prefrontal cortex sparingly. What are the implications for leadership?
All The Mind’s a Stage
Imagine the prefrontal cortex as a stage. Rock poses this metaphor, and it’s a useful visual to help us understand the importance – and the limitations – of this area of the brain. Ideas are like actors, and they wander on and off the stage. Sometimes they linger, sometimes they disappear, sometimes they bump into each other because there are simply too many on stage. All of these actors wander around, and they do not necessarily have anything to do with one another. They’re just there.
Think of this as the ideas that are flowing through your mind all the time. Some people like to think this is multi-tasking; it’s not. It is scattered thinking: these disordered “actors” – thoughts, ideas, perceptions – do not contribute to a coherent performance. If you are going to make headway, if you are going to make a difference, you need a stage manager. This is someone who says, “Ok, you can come on stage now. Face the audience, concentrate, deliver your lines, and you’re off.” The stage manager is ordering and guiding those ideas so you stay focused on what’s important in the moment.
Managing The Prefrontal Cortex
Over the years, I have attempted the to-do list because that’s what people did. You write down what you need to do so you could get it done. I found that my chance of accomplishing everything on my to-do list was zero to nil. On any given day, I’d get 40, 50, or, if lucky, 60 per cent done and have to transfer the remainder to the next day’s list. One starts to feel like Sisyphus after a few days. Well, what if I had a stage manager?
A to-do list is like all those actors wandering across the stage. So, I started a new type of list: a vision list. Instead of “to-do,” it is, “What will I have completed by the end of the day?” I’m not concentrating on what I have to do to accomplish these end results. This way, I give that tired cubic foot of prefrontal cortex a break and let the galaxy of capacity in the back of the brain, perhaps even the subconscious, figure it out based on its experience.
This is important because our prefrontal cortex gets fatigued easily. Our attention is limited, especially when we engage in tasks that tax our prefrontal cortices.We may have just an hour or two of focused attention each day. Knowing this resource is finite, a “to-done” list helps me focus my energy, prioritize, and figure out my capacity for the required work. I’m focusing on the end, the vision, not the start or the “how.” This simple difference means that I regularly achieve 90-95 percent of what I put on the list in the time available to me as well as handle most interruptions and emergencies as they arise.
How Does This Relate To Strategic Thinking?
The vision list is one example, though perhaps a small one, of strategic thinking. Rather than letting our ideas and attention wander, we focus on the initiatives that are important to move our businesses, practices, careers, and personal lives forward. Within that, we have operational thinking to actually accomplish something. But periodically, we go back and think strategically: Am I on track? Do I need to make some adjustments?
As David Rock writes concerning the distractions, jumbled ideas, and wandering actors, “Once we understand that these difficulties are simply limitations inherent in the way our brains are wired, it’s easier to devise strategies to compensate for them.”By understanding the limitations of our prefrontal cortex and taking steps to manage it, whether through vision lists, minimizing distraction, timing, mental breaks, and other techniques, we can become more effective in our roles, …strategically.