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Thinking in Perspective; a leadership challenge

Introduction

This article focuses on providing leaders with key insights and tools to improve their own performance and that of their teams.Emotional regulation is fundamental to leadership. In Business Schools the focus shifting from the importance of getting the task done to how to motivate and engage others to achieve outcomes. The need for leaders to understand their own emotional drivers and how to manage their arousal levels has never been more important. With that in mind this summary essay provides insight on how leaders can use the knowledge gained by Neuroscientists to manage their emotions.

A business perspective – the need

This topic is not new to the business world. In the mid ‘90’s Daniel Goleman published a series of articles and books highlighting the importance for leaders of emotional intelligence. In the ‘What makes a Leader’ Goleman suggests that EQ is much more a predictor of a successful leader than more traditional IQ (Goleman, What makes a Leader?, 1998). The paper sees self awareness and emotional regulation as two foundations of successful leadership. He cites a research project undertaken by David McClelland that linked emotional intelligence capabilities of leaders to performance of their business unit. Goleman links a leader’s ability to manage his emotions with several key organizational factors;
• Increase in trust and support as a leader is more able to respond to situations and people rather than react.
• Ability to manage change and ambiguity. Organisations are continually changing and those leaders that are more able to emotionally
regulate are more likely to respond calmly to change and plan a way forward with their team.
• Improves integrity in businesses as many of the bad decisions that are made are done from a threat response, increasing self protection behaviours.

The importance of the emotional and physical state was highlighted in the Harvard Business Review an article called ‘The Making of the Corporate Athlete (Loehr & Schwartz, 2001). When this article appeared, much like Goleman’s work it set the business world thinking differently about the sustainability of leadership. In this paper the authors discussed the high level of expectations on leaders, with the need to be at optimal performance most of the time or the Ideal Performance State (IPS). The paper argued that for many elite sportsmen they train for a season or a game but our executives are running consecutive marathons and therefore it is very hard to be at IPS. This paper provided an interesting perspective that leaders needed to attend to their mental, emotional, physical and spiritual needs to be in IPS more often.
Since then many articles and reference books have surfaced that build on these concepts Social Intelligence (Goleman & Boyatzis, Social intelligence and the biology of leadership, 2008), Why should anyone be led by you? (Goffee & Jones, 2006), Resonant Leadership (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005), The Mindful Leader (Carroll, 2007), even the Dalai Lama has published a book on leadership ‘The Leaders Way’ using the wisdom of the Buddhists (Lama, 2008).

Harvard Business School has supported this leadership theme by producing a number of articles as well as including Positive Psychology as a unit on the illustrious Executive MBA with Professor Tal Ben Shahar. This is the highest attended course on the program.

Emotional Regulation for Leaders – The Fundamentals

Let me introduce your new best friend – the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC)!

Leaders don’t spend a lot of time discussing the pre frontal cortex, leaders can take their ability to think, make choices, reason and have self control for granted, and yet the functioning of the pre frontal cortex makes the difference from clear thinking and focus to procrastination and fog!
The PFC is the executive functioning region which includes the capacity for goal setting, motivation inhibit inappropriate behaviour, conceptual thinking, free thinking from internal and external distractions and plays an important role in how we encode and retrieve memories and gives us our ability to understand what others are thinking. And we know that it very sensitive to its neuro chemical environment. The two main neuro chemicals are dopamine and norepinephrine – the arousal chemicals – too little and you will feel lethargic, disinhibited and disinterested, too much and you may feel overwhelmed (Rock, Your Brain at Work, 2009).

A leader’s levels of dopamine, in particular, are responsible for many functions including feeling of reward, pleasure, compulsion and perseverance. Norepinephrine underlies the fight or flight response. These chemicals are also known as catecholamine’s, and it is the right level of catecholamine’s that leads to optimum functioning of your PFC (Dispenza, 2007).

What are thoughts? And how do we think and feel?

It is an interesting question. Our brain is made up of about 75% water, which is why drinking water is very important. We also have glia cells in our brain that our regarded as being the glue and play a supportive role, and then we have nerve cells, neurons or brain cells. The neurons are responsible for passing on information from neuron to neuron around the brain. In a tiny slice of brain tissue, say the size of a grain of sand we have over 100,000 neurons. The neurons are shaped in a pattern or a map that shape our individual behaviour (Doux J. L., 2002).
When we are born our brain cells begin to “fire” and start to wire together. Neurons that aren’t activated slowly wither and die, in neuroscience terms it is called pruning. Our early childhood experiences influence our neural maps that we take into the world (Dispenza, 2007).
When a neuron is activated an electrical charge passes down through it, there is a synaptic gap between one neuron and another and for information to be passed along this gap needs to be bridged. The role of the neurotransmitter is to bridge that gap and pass information onto the next neuron. The neurotransmitters include dopamine and serotonin and they shape our subjective experience. These neuro ransmitters create our mood. We go through so many different feelings in a day and it is the stimulation of particular neural pathways that leads to our brain chemistry. Put simply our thoughts lead to our feelings. (Dispenza, 2007)

Types of neurotransmitters include; serotonin, dopamine, GABA, glumate, acetycholine, melatonin, nitric oxide and various endorphins. These neurotransmitters have many roles but to name two; glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter and GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
Neurons that fire together – wire together – Hebbs Law

According to Hebb we learn by forming new synaptic connections between neurons. So every time we learn something new we form new synaptic connections. Every time we repeat something we already know then we reinforce and strengthen the connection. As we learn something knew our brains will try and associated it with past thoughts and experiences and this creates neural maps. (Dispenza, 2007).
It takes time for the new thinking (learning) to be held in memory but with repetition this is embedded.
Attention is important for this new learning to take place. The phrase where your attention goes, energy flows relates to the fact that new learning (new synaptic connection) is created through focus. Our brain can activate a whole host of other synaptic networks that can distract you from the original intention.

The good news is that researchers now agree that there is overwhelming evidence of neural plasticity, that is that with conscious effort we can change our neural pathways (thinking), create new pathways (new thoughts) and experience different moods (neurotransmitters). (Doige, 2007)

How your emotional system works?

The limbic system is found in the middle of your brain – central to everything with strong connections to the both brain stem (sends out fight or flight requests), the PFC (executive thinking).

How many times have you heard that you need to leave or emotions at the door or emotions don’t have a place in an organisation? Well I do have news for you; our emotions are with us every step of the way. And they are very useful. Our feelings help us to learn and to adapt. Without feelings we wouldn’t see threats and we wouldn’t seek out pleasure. In fact our emotions are crucial in making decisions. Patients with damage to this area would have difficulty in making a simple decision such as which restaurant they would like to eat at (Lehrer, 2009). They would be able to list all the local places, their menus and prices – but not be able to express their preference…. So a healthy limbic system is essential to us, but what about for some of us who have learned to be over fearful, over anxious, then it becomes a hindrance to us and more importantly it becomes a health problem (Doux J. L., 1996).
The key parts of the limbic system are:
• The amygdala – the fear centre
• The hippocampus – the emotional memory centre
• The hypothalamus – the producer of chemicals – feelings
• The orbital frontal cortex – the error detection centre.

Minimising Danger and Maximising Reward

There are two core brain motivations to minimize danger and maximize reward (Gordon, 2009). If you think about it from an evolutionary point of view we needed to be able to spot danger to survive and seek rewards like food, shelter and connection with others.
We are wired to response quicker to threat than reward. Ever wondered why you see more threat than reward? Well our response to threat is faster and stronger then our response to reward – for some of us that means that we are more aware of the constant daily threat responses.


The Emotional Journey

It is important to understand how the human brain responds to external stimuli. There is low road and the high road in action – the low road is about REACTION, the high road is RESPONSE …. But remember we have both for a reason…So there are two routes: the high road and the low road – and they happen simultaneously to create the emotional reaction (Doux J. L., 1996). If you think about walking through a wood, you see a long thing on the ground, immediately a message is sent in through the sensory thalamus to your amygdala – signaling immediate danger. Meanwhile the data is also sent to the higher functioning cortex to check for more information. This then sends the message to the amygdala that it is in fact a stick! The amygdala will slow down activation.

Our natural emotional braking system.

We all have a part of the brain that helps us to regulate our emotional responses. This is the Right Ventral Lateral Pre Frontal Cortex (RVLPFC). This is a magical part of the brain that when activated enables us to modulate our emotional life (Libermann, 2008). It is part of the Pre Frontal Cortex and therefore it is highly sensitive to:
• Food – levels of glucose for brain energy
• Sleep – tiredness depletes the PFC, it’s when neurons are regenerated, new memories are formed, and new synaptic connections are made. These changes take place at different parts of the sleep cycle, so a full nights rest is important. But between hectic lifestyles and stress induced insomnia, many of us don’t get the 7-9 hours we need.
• Multi processing, overwork – can tire PFC capacity
• Hydration – needs water to function, eight eight-ounce glasses of water is still a good general estimate for most of us
• Oxygenation – Not only does physical exercise improve general health, it specifically helps your brain. It improves circulation (increasing blood flow to the brain) and stimulates biochemical reactions such as serotonin and endorphins!
• Stress – amygdala activation has an inverse relationship with the RVLPFC

The RVLPFC is key to regulating emotions and one of the key things to remember is that the activation of the RVLPFC and the activation of the amygdala have an inverse connection. As your fear increases (amygdala responds) then the RVLPFC closes down and vice versa. (Libermann, 2008)

Four Pillars of Emotional Regulation for Leaders

A powerful approach to improving a leaders emotional regulation is to focus on the impact of four pillars. These four pillars can work together to improve an individual’s ability to regulate. They are:
• Exercise
• Nutrition
• Mindfulness
• Cognitive Strategies
Using these four pillars, leaders can create an individual plan that will help them to become more sustainable as leaders.

Exercise

Exercise is good for us, but why is exercise important for emotional regulation and how can regular exercise improve your PFC functioning.
“The brain, especially, relies on a healthy vascular system to efficiently deliver oxygen and key nutrients and remove waste. In fact, the brain uses approximately 20% of the oxygen we breathe to satisfy its high-energy demands. Given that the brain only weighs about 2% of the body, we can consider it an energy hog and we must cater to its needs very carefully.” (Evans, 2008)
Therefore keeping your brain oxygenized is very important. Our breathing shallows when we get stressed and the amount of oxygen we take in decreases. Attending to your vascular system ensures that you have a functioning and efficient oxygen ‘intake’ system.

‘Human studies have shown the value of exercise in controlling stress and maintaining positive mood states; in improving cognitive function, including performance on memory and executive tasks; and in improving the brain’s two-way communication streams with the rest of the body. Some of these benefits are likely due to the positive effects of exercise on neurovascular health, which parallel cardiovascular health” (Evans, 2008)

So exercise is an effective way to impact stress, when you exercise you lease serotonin and endorphin, two hormones that lead us to a subjective experience of positivity and wellbeing. It impacts our mood and we feel better about our world.

Other reasons to exercise;
• Longer life
• Disease fighter – especially heart attacks, blood pressure etc
• Weight management – health and self esteem.

Nutrition

Feeding your brain regularly will benefit your PFC functioning, the most sensitive part of the brain. The brain uses 20% of your body’s total energy and is therefore energy intensive and therefore needs regular glucose to function well. The problem is that feeding your brain too much or too little glucose will mean impaired performance. The glucose travels to your brain via your blood therefore blood sugar levels are critical.
If you eat irregularly i.e. starve your brain of glucose, and then eat a high sugar snack, the brain is overloaded with glucose and the additional glucose is discarded. So what you need is little and often.

The frequency of eating is important as is what you eat. Some foods are more satisfying than others and take longer to digest and therefore maintain more consistent levels of glucose. Your glucose is naturally low in the morning which is why breakfast is so important…. A good breakfast is essential to creating healthy glucose levels.

Mindfulness

”The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not” William James.

Mindfulness has been linked with Buddhism and other religions and yet in recent years Science has combined with Religion to explore why mindfulness and meditation works. This has been driven by many including the Dalai Lama, who has a fascinating with looking at the science behind the tenets of Buddhism. He has held a number of conferences with hard core Neuroscientists to discuss the connections. Practicing Buddhists have also been asked to be used as guinea pigs by scientists, inviting them to be involved in mainstream experiments using fMRI scanners. The most notable practicing Buddhist was Mathieu Ricard who was involved with many experiments with Richard Davidson (Ricard, 2007). What they discovered was that the practicing Buddhists were able to a) switch their minds from one state to another quickly and b) had a greater capacity for compassion.

“The Dalai Lama has noted that the most powerful influences on the mind come from within our own mind. The findings that, in highly experienced meditators, there is greater activity in the left PFC, therefore happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain” (Begley, 2009)
What scientists and Buddhists do agree is that your mind can be trained to cultivate more positive emotions.

Default vs Direct Network

What we do know is that there is a default network that we go into when we day dream. We go into the default when we allow our mind to wander. Scientists agree that it is our default so when we give our mind a rest and break from focus on work we will unconsciously go into the default state (Rock, Your Brain at Work, 2009). It can also be called the narrative or rumination, it can be a useful state to ponder over things that have happened and embed memories and make connections (Tabibnia).
• Thinking about self (medial PFC)
• Thinking about others thoughts (Dorsal medial PFC)
• Thinking about others actions (Lateral temporal lobe)
So when you slip into default and start thinking about yourself and start to wonder about what others may be thinking about you, it is quite normal. However it can have a downside. For many of us our rumination leads to catastrophising or a downward spiral. The rumination may start with reliving something that someone said yesterday and then that may trigger another memory which could lead to a threat response.
The direct experience network is when we are aware of our bodily sensations, so our attention is on our senses. When we activate our direct network, we shut off the default network and vice versa.

“When the direct experience network is active several different brain regions become more active. This includes the insula, a region that relates to perceiving bodily sensations. Also activated is the anterior cingulated cortex, a region central the detecting errors and switching your attention. When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or the future, other people, or yourself. Rather you are experiencing information that comes to your senses in real time.” (Rock, Your Brain at Work, 2009)

So when the direct experience network is turned on the default quiets down. So if you are walking to a meeting and ruminating that the meeting is going to be bad and you feel yourself getting more stressed then switching to the direct network and feeling the sun on your face, or become aware of your feet on the floor or just breathing can prevent the increasing limbic response and keep you cool under pressure.

Leaders who regularly meditate and practiced mindfulness found that they were (Hassed, 2002);
• Better control over the default circuit.
• Better able to regulate emotions
• Become more aware of their unconscious processes
• Able to change their attention
• Have greater cognitive control
• Reduces stress – including lowers allostatic load (prolonged stress)
• Increase cortical thickness
• Benefits higher order cognitive functioning – including working memory and ability to process information.

Cognitive Training

“Sometimes we elaborate negative events in ways that amplify our feelings about them, adding cognitive insult to perceived injury” (Oschner, 2008)
Although mindfulness is a version of mind training there are several mental processes that have been found to be beneficial in regulating emotions.
Mindfulness practice will mean that you will become more aware of when you go into a default mode and you will gain an ability to switch so you are no longer the victim to your emotions but you have a skill to be able to manage your feelings.
So in cognitive training there are two methods that seem to have the greater success in managing emotional regulation.
• Cognitive strategies (Oschner, 2008) (Schwartz, 2002)
• Labeling (Libermann, 2008)

Firstly there is a trigger, a situation it can be external and also it can be an internal thought. The stimulus triggers your attention to change, so if you have to make a public presentation, your attention may go into preparing your speech or wondering about how many people will think that you are stupid, we then appraise the situation based on reward or threat. If our attention is focused on things going wrong or people not agreeing then that is what we are going to be looking for. And this creates a physiological response.
So Oschner offers five ways to regulate your response, some more healthy than others. Let’s look at it as if we had been asked to speak at a conference.

Situation selection: this would mean that you would avoid the situations that made you feel uncomfortable i.e. an option would be to avoid delivering the speech. This would help to regulate your emotions but you would never learn to manage them through this process.
Situation modification: this would mean that you would go through with the speech, but modify the situation. You may decide to write out your notes, rehearse, get to know the audience.
Attention deployment: this would mean that when you were speaking your attention would be say at the back of the room so not engaging with the audience. Or look for friendly faces in the audience, those that are nodding in agreement.
Reappraisal: this could take a number of forms including reinterpreting the situation or reframing. Think about the positives or benefits of giving the speech or think that all the speakers will be nervous i.e. normalize it. The second reappraisal strategy is to just accept your feelings are just fleeting and they will pass i.e. use your direct experience network to stop worrying and be in the now. And finally use a distancing technique to imagine if you were looking down on yourself as a 3rd person.
Response modulation: this would mean suppressing your emotions or enhancing an expression of behaviour. So it would be suppressing the feelings of fear about the speech and getting through it.
Reappraisal is one of the best methods of emotional regulation (Oschner, 2008). Whilst most of us chose emotional suppression as a key strategy, this increases our blood pressure and stress levels (Hassed, 2002).
Reappraisal used in experiments has shown that it significantly reduces amygdale activity by increasing the activation of the RVLPFC. (Oschner, 2008)

Another cognitive process uses a four step emotional regulation process for his patients with OCD (Schwartz, 2002). These people have thoughts that are overwhelming and yet through this process he has helped many patients to recover. This may be useful for people who have many negative internal thoughts. The process is:
Step 1: Relabel – name the feeling and label it as a thought
Step 2: Reattribute – name the fact that it is not you it is just a negative thought that you have learned over the years.
Step 3: Refocus – redirect your thoughts – create a pause, breath or use direct experience network, or do something else (distract), go for a walk
Step 4: Revalue – label those thoughts as just that, just neural pathways firing together, it is not permanent.

Labeling

Another approach is to label emotions (Lieberman, 2008). The research found that by labeling emotions verbally or non verbally (journal writing) that it dramatically reduced the levels of stress in individuals. Lieberman found that after numerous studies it was clear that the RVLPFC activity disrupted the amygdala activation, therefore lowering a threat response.

Based on this work therefore it is important to regulate your emotional state by:
• Saying how you feel – to others or to yourself. If someone upsets you it is ok to say: I am feeling very disappointed ….. “ etc Practice I feel phrases.
• Writing how you feel, using a journal to capture your thoughts and feelings is also a good tool to reduce amygdale activation.

Summary – A Leaders Perspective

The essay incorporates neuro science research and learning that is highly applicable to leaders today. There is so much more that is missing from this essay that could be incorporated from the learning of the Post Grad program, however, the choice was to focus on something that I feel is highly significant to many leaders that I meet as coach and facilitator.

Managing decision making, perspective and clarity when under pressure is a key skill for a leader. Some seem to be able to have a higher degree of ability than others, however, the ability to manage one’s emotions can be learned and practiced. The use of the four pillars to develop healthier emotion regulation strategies creates a simple and pragmatic approach to a highly complex area.
Leaders rarely look to themselves first, they are more likely to sacrifice themselves for others or for the business (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005) and yet they are doing themselves and the business a huge disservice. By ignoring their mental and emotional health they will impact their cognitive function, their ability to make responsive decisions and keep perspective. For many leaders the ability to adapt from one situation to another, taking in priorty data and making decisions, sensing the mood of the team (Goffee R. , 2006) are critical and these are all enhanced by optimizing PFC health and balance.

Convincing leaders that there is a link between mental and emotional balance and well being and performance is the key to getting their attention. Although courses such as Authentic Leaders (University of Western Australia) focus on helping leaders build self awareness, it is often met with resistance as leaders grapple with the notion of emotional management being important. To many ‘old school’ leaders, the theory is to flog yourself until you retire or burnout. It appears to many somehow weak to think about their own sense of well being. The leaders are looking for ways to improve performance. Technology and systems have developed rapidly to bring speed and adaptability to the workplace. There is more data available, communications are getting faster and decisions are needed quickly. The growing trends of technology fail to match the changes in the way in which we think, feel and act as leaders. An often quoted example of this is the use of the mobile and now the Blackberry. Work no longer finishes when we leave the office, emails, phone calls and texts are instantly sent and many expect an immediate reply. Our brains become overloaded and it is easy to understand how leaders can become more fatigued and under pressure. Emotional regulation is key to building sustainable leadership.

The Four Pillar approach enables leaders to develop personal plans for emotional regulation. As we are each individual with unique needs the four pillars enables leaders to chose to work on strategies that can impact them the most.

Bibliography

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Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Carroll, M. (2007). The Mindful Leader. Boston: Shambala Publications.
Carver, C. (1979). A cybernetic model of self-attention processes. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology , 1251-1281.
Dispenza, J. (2007). Evolve Your Brain. Health Communications Inc.
Doige, N. (2007). The Brain that Changes Itself. London: Penguin Books.
Doux, J. L. (2002). Synaptic Self. Penguin Books.
Doux, J. L. (1996). The Emotional Brain. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks.
Evans, D. S. (2008). A Users Guide to Lifelong Brain Health: BrainFit for Life.
Fredrickson, B. (2004 September 29). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Royal Society of Biological Sciences , 1367-1378.
Goffee, R. (2006). Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? Harvard Business School Press.
Goffee, R., & Jones, G. (2006). Why should anyone be led by you? United States of America: Harvard Business School Press.
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Goleman, D. (1998). What makes a Leader? Harvard Business Review , 93-102.
Goleman, D., & Boyatzis, R. (2008). Social intelligence and the biology of leadership. Harvard Business Review reprint R0809E , 1-7.
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Hassed, C. (2002). Know Thyself. Michelle Anderson Publishing.
Lama, D. (2008). The Leaders Way. Australia: Nicholas Brearly.
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Lencioni, P. (2005). Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of Team. Jossey-Bass.
Liberman, M., & Eisenberger, N. (2008). The Pains and Pleasures of Social Life. NeuroLeadership Journal , 3-8.
Libermann, M. (2008). Putting Feelings into Words. NeuroLeadership Journal .
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Rock, D. (2008). SCARF a brain based model for collaborating and influencing others. Journal of Neuro Leadership , 1-9.
Rock, D. (2009). Your Brain at Work. Harper Collins.
Schwartz, J. (2002). The Mind & The Brain. HaperCollins.
Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Displine. New York: Currency Paperback.
Siegel, D. (2009). Mindsight. Victoria: Scribe Publications.
Siegel, D. (2007). The Mindful Brain. MidAtlantic Books & Journals.
Tabibnia, G. (n.d.). Introduction to The Social Brain. 2010 .
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Zak, P. (2008). Neurobiology of Trust. Scientific American .

A business perspective – the need

This topic is not new to the business world. In the mid ‘90’s Daniel Goleman published a series of articles and books highlighting the importance for leaders of emotional intelligence. In the ‘What makes a Leader’ Goleman suggests that EQ is much more a predictor of a successful leader than more traditional IQ (Goleman, What makes a Leader?, 1998). The paper sees self awareness and emotional regulation as two foundations of successful leadership. He cites a research project undertaken by David McClelland that linked emotional intelligence capabilities of leaders to performance of their business unit. Goleman links a leader’s ability to manage his emotions with several key organizational factors;
• Increase in trust and support as a leader is more able to respond to situations and people rather than react.
• Ability to manage change and ambiguity. Organisations are continually changing and those leaders that are more able to emotionally
regulate are more likely to respond calmly to change and plan a way forward with their team.
• Improves integrity in businesses as many of the bad decisions that are made are done from a threat response, increasing self protection behaviours.

The importance of the emotional and physical state was highlighted in the Harvard Business Review an article called ‘The Making of the Corporate Athlete (Loehr & Schwartz, 2001). When this article appeared, much like Goleman’s work it set the business world thinking differently about the sustainability of leadership. In this paper the authors discussed the high level of expectations on leaders, with the need to be at optimal performance most of the time or the Ideal Performance State (IPS). The paper argued that for many elite sportsmen they train for a season or a game but our executives are running consecutive marathons and therefore it is very hard to be at IPS. This paper provided an interesting perspective that leaders needed to attend to their mental, emotional, physical and spiritual needs to be in IPS more often.
Since then many articles and reference books have surfaced that build on these concepts Social Intelligence (Goleman & Boyatzis, Social intelligence and the biology of leadership, 2008), Why should anyone be led by you? (Goffee & Jones, 2006), Resonant Leadership (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005), The Mindful Leader (Carroll, 2007), even the Dalai Lama has published a book on leadership ‘The Leaders Way’ using the wisdom of the Buddhists (Lama, 2008).

Harvard Business School has supported this leadership theme by producing a number of articles as well as including Positive Psychology as a unit on the illustrious Executive MBA with Professor Tal Ben Shahar. This is the highest attended course on the program.

Emotional Regulation for Leaders – The Fundamentals

Let me introduce your new best friend – the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC)!

Leaders don’t spend a lot of time discussing the pre frontal cortex, leaders can take their ability to think, make choices, reason and have self control for granted, and yet the functioning of the pre frontal cortex makes the difference from clear thinking and focus to procrastination and fog!
The PFC is the executive functioning region which includes the capacity for goal setting, motivation inhibit inappropriate behaviour, conceptual thinking, free thinking from internal and external distractions and plays an important role in how we encode and retrieve memories and gives us our ability to understand what others are thinking. And we know that it very sensitive to its neuro chemical environment. The two main neuro chemicals are dopamine and norepinephrine – the arousal chemicals – too little and you will feel lethargic, disinhibited and disinterested, too much and you may feel overwhelmed (Rock, Your Brain at Work, 2009).

A leader’s levels of dopamine, in particular, are responsible for many functions including feeling of reward, pleasure, compulsion and perseverance. Norepinephrine underlies the fight or flight response. These chemicals are also known as catecholamine’s, and it is the right level of catecholamine’s that leads to optimum functioning of your PFC (Dispenza, 2007).

What are thoughts? And how do we think and feel?

It is an interesting question. Our brain is made up of about 75% water, which is why drinking water is very important. We also have glia cells in our brain that our regarded as being the glue and play a supportive role, and then we have nerve cells, neurons or brain cells. The neurons are responsible for passing on information from neuron to neuron around the brain. In a tiny slice of brain tissue, say the size of a grain of sand we have over 100,000 neurons. The neurons are shaped in a pattern or a map that shape our individual behaviour (Doux J. L., 2002).
When we are born our brain cells begin to “fire” and start to wire together. Neurons that aren’t activated slowly wither and die, in neuroscience terms it is called pruning. Our early childhood experiences influence our neural maps that we take into the world (Dispenza, 2007).
When a neuron is activated an electrical charge passes down through it, there is a synaptic gap between one neuron and another and for information to be passed along this gap needs to be bridged. The role of the neurotransmitter is to bridge that gap and pass information onto the next neuron. The neurotransmitters include dopamine and serotonin and they shape our subjective experience. These neuro ransmitters create our mood. We go through so many different feelings in a day and it is the stimulation of particular neural pathways that leads to our brain chemistry. Put simply our thoughts lead to our feelings. (Dispenza, 2007)

Types of neurotransmitters include; serotonin, dopamine, GABA, glumate, acetycholine, melatonin, nitric oxide and various endorphins. These neurotransmitters have many roles but to name two; glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter and GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
Neurons that fire together – wire together – Hebbs Law

According to Hebb we learn by forming new synaptic connections between neurons. So every time we learn something new we form new synaptic connections. Every time we repeat something we already know then we reinforce and strengthen the connection. As we learn something knew our brains will try and associated it with past thoughts and experiences and this creates neural maps. (Dispenza, 2007).
It takes time for the new thinking (learning) to be held in memory but with repetition this is embedded.
Attention is important for this new learning to take place. The phrase where your attention goes, energy flows relates to the fact that new learning (new synaptic connection) is created through focus. Our brain can activate a whole host of other synaptic networks that can distract you from the original intention.

The good news is that researchers now agree that there is overwhelming evidence of neural plasticity, that is that with conscious effort we can change our neural pathways (thinking), create new pathways (new thoughts) and experience different moods (neurotransmitters). (Doige, 2007)

How your emotional system works?

The limbic system is found in the middle of your brain – central to everything with strong connections to the both brain stem (sends out fight or flight requests), the PFC (executive thinking).

How many times have you heard that you need to leave or emotions at the door or emotions don’t have a place in an organisation? Well I do have news for you; our emotions are with us every step of the way. And they are very useful. Our feelings help us to learn and to adapt. Without feelings we wouldn’t see threats and we wouldn’t seek out pleasure. In fact our emotions are crucial in making decisions. Patients with damage to this area would have difficulty in making a simple decision such as which restaurant they would like to eat at (Lehrer, 2009). They would be able to list all the local places, their menus and prices – but not be able to express their preference…. So a healthy limbic system is essential to us, but what about for some of us who have learned to be over fearful, over anxious, then it becomes a hindrance to us and more importantly it becomes a health problem (Doux J. L., 1996).
The key parts of the limbic system are:
• The amygdala – the fear centre
• The hippocampus – the emotional memory centre
• The hypothalamus – the producer of chemicals – feelings
• The orbital frontal cortex – the error detection centre.

Minimising Danger and Maximising Reward

There are two core brain motivations to minimize danger and maximize reward (Gordon, 2009). If you think about it from an evolutionary point of view we needed to be able to spot danger to survive and seek rewards like food, shelter and connection with others.
We are wired to response quicker to threat than reward. Ever wondered why you see more threat than reward? Well our response to threat is faster and stronger then our response to reward – for some of us that means that we are more aware of the constant daily threat responses.


The Emotional Journey

It is important to understand how the human brain responds to external stimuli. There is low road and the high road in action – the low road is about REACTION, the high road is RESPONSE …. But remember we have both for a reason…So there are two routes: the high road and the low road – and they happen simultaneously to create the emotional reaction (Doux J. L., 1996). If you think about walking through a wood, you see a long thing on the ground, immediately a message is sent in through the sensory thalamus to your amygdala – signaling immediate danger. Meanwhile the data is also sent to the higher functioning cortex to check for more information. This then sends the message to the amygdala that it is in fact a stick! The amygdala will slow down activation.

Our natural emotional braking system.

We all have a part of the brain that helps us to regulate our emotional responses. This is the Right Ventral Lateral Pre Frontal Cortex (RVLPFC). This is a magical part of the brain that when activated enables us to modulate our emotional life (Libermann, 2008). It is part of the Pre Frontal Cortex and therefore it is highly sensitive to:
• Food – levels of glucose for brain energy
• Sleep – tiredness depletes the PFC, it’s when neurons are regenerated, new memories are formed, and new synaptic connections are made. These changes take place at different parts of the sleep cycle, so a full nights rest is important. But between hectic lifestyles and stress induced insomnia, many of us don’t get the 7-9 hours we need.
• Multi processing, overwork – can tire PFC capacity
• Hydration – needs water to function, eight eight-ounce glasses of water is still a good general estimate for most of us
• Oxygenation – Not only does physical exercise improve general health, it specifically helps your brain. It improves circulation (increasing blood flow to the brain) and stimulates biochemical reactions such as serotonin and endorphins!
• Stress – amygdala activation has an inverse relationship with the RVLPFC

The RVLPFC is key to regulating emotions and one of the key things to remember is that the activation of the RVLPFC and the activation of the amygdala have an inverse connection. As your fear increases (amygdala responds) then the RVLPFC closes down and vice versa. (Libermann, 2008)

Four Pillars of Emotional Regulation for Leaders

A powerful approach to improving a leaders emotional regulation is to focus on the impact of four pillars. These four pillars can work together to improve an individual’s ability to regulate. They are:
• Exercise
• Nutrition
• Mindfulness
• Cognitive Strategies
Using these four pillars, leaders can create an individual plan that will help them to become more sustainable as leaders.

Exercise

Exercise is good for us, but why is exercise important for emotional regulation and how can regular exercise improve your PFC functioning.
“The brain, especially, relies on a healthy vascular system to efficiently deliver oxygen and key nutrients and remove waste. In fact, the brain uses approximately 20% of the oxygen we breathe to satisfy its high-energy demands. Given that the brain only weighs about 2% of the body, we can consider it an energy hog and we must cater to its needs very carefully.” (Evans, 2008)
Therefore keeping your brain oxygenized is very important. Our breathing shallows when we get stressed and the amount of oxygen we take in decreases. Attending to your vascular system ensures that you have a functioning and efficient oxygen ‘intake’ system.

‘Human studies have shown the value of exercise in controlling stress and maintaining positive mood states; in improving cognitive function, including performance on memory and executive tasks; and in improving the brain’s two-way communication streams with the rest of the body. Some of these benefits are likely due to the positive effects of exercise on neurovascular health, which parallel cardiovascular health” (Evans, 2008)

So exercise is an effective way to impact stress, when you exercise you lease serotonin and endorphin, two hormones that lead us to a subjective experience of positivity and wellbeing. It impacts our mood and we feel better about our world.

Other reasons to exercise;
• Longer life
• Disease fighter – especially heart attacks, blood pressure etc
• Weight management – health and self esteem.

Nutrition

Feeding your brain regularly will benefit your PFC functioning, the most sensitive part of the brain. The brain uses 20% of your body’s total energy and is therefore energy intensive and therefore needs regular glucose to function well. The problem is that feeding your brain too much or too little glucose will mean impaired performance. The glucose travels to your brain via your blood therefore blood sugar levels are critical.
If you eat irregularly i.e. starve your brain of glucose, and then eat a high sugar snack, the brain is overloaded with glucose and the additional glucose is discarded. So what you need is little and often.

The frequency of eating is important as is what you eat. Some foods are more satisfying than others and take longer to digest and therefore maintain more consistent levels of glucose. Your glucose is naturally low in the morning which is why breakfast is so important…. A good breakfast is essential to creating healthy glucose levels.

Mindfulness

”The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not” William James.

Mindfulness has been linked with Buddhism and other religions and yet in recent years Science has combined with Religion to explore why mindfulness and meditation works. This has been driven by many including the Dalai Lama, who has a fascinating with looking at the science behind the tenets of Buddhism. He has held a number of conferences with hard core Neuroscientists to discuss the connections. Practicing Buddhists have also been asked to be used as guinea pigs by scientists, inviting them to be involved in mainstream experiments using fMRI scanners. The most notable practicing Buddhist was Mathieu Ricard who was involved with many experiments with Richard Davidson (Ricard, 2007). What they discovered was that the practicing Buddhists were able to a) switch their minds from one state to another quickly and b) had a greater capacity for compassion.

“The Dalai Lama has noted that the most powerful influences on the mind come from within our own mind. The findings that, in highly experienced meditators, there is greater activity in the left PFC, therefore happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain” (Begley, 2009)
What scientists and Buddhists do agree is that your mind can be trained to cultivate more positive emotions.

Default vs Direct Network

What we do know is that there is a default network that we go into when we day dream. We go into the default when we allow our mind to wander. Scientists agree that it is our default so when we give our mind a rest and break from focus on work we will unconsciously go into the default state (Rock, Your Brain at Work, 2009). It can also be called the narrative or rumination, it can be a useful state to ponder over things that have happened and embed memories and make connections (Tabibnia).
• Thinking about self (medial PFC)
• Thinking about others thoughts (Dorsal medial PFC)
• Thinking about others actions (Lateral temporal lobe)
So when you slip into default and start thinking about yourself and start to wonder about what others may be thinking about you, it is quite normal. However it can have a downside. For many of us our rumination leads to catastrophising or a downward spiral. The rumination may start with reliving something that someone said yesterday and then that may trigger another memory which could lead to a threat response.
The direct experience network is when we are aware of our bodily sensations, so our attention is on our senses. When we activate our direct network, we shut off the default network and vice versa.

“When the direct experience network is active several different brain regions become more active. This includes the insula, a region that relates to perceiving bodily sensations. Also activated is the anterior cingulated cortex, a region central the detecting errors and switching your attention. When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or the future, other people, or yourself. Rather you are experiencing information that comes to your senses in real time.” (Rock, Your Brain at Work, 2009)

So when the direct experience network is turned on the default quiets down. So if you are walking to a meeting and ruminating that the meeting is going to be bad and you feel yourself getting more stressed then switching to the direct network and feeling the sun on your face, or become aware of your feet on the floor or just breathing can prevent the increasing limbic response and keep you cool under pressure.

Leaders who regularly meditate and practiced mindfulness found that they were (Hassed, 2002);
• Better control over the default circuit.
• Better able to regulate emotions
• Become more aware of their unconscious processes
• Able to change their attention
• Have greater cognitive control
• Reduces stress – including lowers allostatic load (prolonged stress)
• Increase cortical thickness
• Benefits higher order cognitive functioning – including working memory and ability to process information.

Cognitive Training

“Sometimes we elaborate negative events in ways that amplify our feelings about them, adding cognitive insult to perceived injury” (Oschner, 2008)
Although mindfulness is a version of mind training there are several mental processes that have been found to be beneficial in regulating emotions.
Mindfulness practice will mean that you will become more aware of when you go into a default mode and you will gain an ability to switch so you are no longer the victim to your emotions but you have a skill to be able to manage your feelings.
So in cognitive training there are two methods that seem to have the greater success in managing emotional regulation.
• Cognitive strategies (Oschner, 2008) (Schwartz, 2002)
• Labeling (Libermann, 2008)

Firstly there is a trigger, a situation it can be external and also it can be an internal thought. The stimulus triggers your attention to change, so if you have to make a public presentation, your attention may go into preparing your speech or wondering about how many people will think that you are stupid, we then appraise the situation based on reward or threat. If our attention is focused on things going wrong or people not agreeing then that is what we are going to be looking for. And this creates a physiological response.
So Oschner offers five ways to regulate your response, some more healthy than others. Let’s look at it as if we had been asked to speak at a conference.

Situation selection: this would mean that you would avoid the situations that made you feel uncomfortable i.e. an option would be to avoid delivering the speech. This would help to regulate your emotions but you would never learn to manage them through this process.
Situation modification: this would mean that you would go through with the speech, but modify the situation. You may decide to write out your notes, rehearse, get to know the audience.
Attention deployment: this would mean that when you were speaking your attention would be say at the back of the room so not engaging with the audience. Or look for friendly faces in the audience, those that are nodding in agreement.
Reappraisal: this could take a number of forms including reinterpreting the situation or reframing. Think about the positives or benefits of giving the speech or think that all the speakers will be nervous i.e. normalize it. The second reappraisal strategy is to just accept your feelings are just fleeting and they will pass i.e. use your direct experience network to stop worrying and be in the now. And finally use a distancing technique to imagine if you were looking down on yourself as a 3rd person.
Response modulation: this would mean suppressing your emotions or enhancing an expression of behaviour. So it would be suppressing the feelings of fear about the speech and getting through it.
Reappraisal is one of the best methods of emotional regulation (Oschner, 2008). Whilst most of us chose emotional suppression as a key strategy, this increases our blood pressure and stress levels (Hassed, 2002).
Reappraisal used in experiments has shown that it significantly reduces amygdale activity by increasing the activation of the RVLPFC. (Oschner, 2008)

Another cognitive process uses a four step emotional regulation process for his patients with OCD (Schwartz, 2002). These people have thoughts that are overwhelming and yet through this process he has helped many patients to recover. This may be useful for people who have many negative internal thoughts. The process is:
Step 1: Relabel – name the feeling and label it as a thought
Step 2: Reattribute – name the fact that it is not you it is just a negative thought that you have learned over the years.
Step 3: Refocus – redirect your thoughts – create a pause, breath or use direct experience network, or do something else (distract), go for a walk
Step 4: Revalue – label those thoughts as just that, just neural pathways firing together, it is not permanent.

Labeling

Another approach is to label emotions (Lieberman, 2008). The research found that by labeling emotions verbally or non verbally (journal writing) that it dramatically reduced the levels of stress in individuals. Lieberman found that after numerous studies it was clear that the RVLPFC activity disrupted the amygdala activation, therefore lowering a threat response.

Based on this work therefore it is important to regulate your emotional state by:
• Saying how you feel – to others or to yourself. If someone upsets you it is ok to say: I am feeling very disappointed ….. “ etc Practice I feel phrases.
• Writing how you feel, using a journal to capture your thoughts and feelings is also a good tool to reduce amygdale activation.

Summary – A Leaders Perspective

The essay incorporates neuro science research and learning that is highly applicable to leaders today. There is so much more that is missing from this essay that could be incorporated from the learning of the Post Grad program, however, the choice was to focus on something that I feel is highly significant to many leaders that I meet as coach and facilitator.

Managing decision making, perspective and clarity when under pressure is a key skill for a leader. Some seem to be able to have a higher degree of ability than others, however, the ability to manage one’s emotions can be learned and practiced. The use of the four pillars to develop healthier emotion regulation strategies creates a simple and pragmatic approach to a highly complex area.
Leaders rarely look to themselves first, they are more likely to sacrifice themselves for others or for the business (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005) and yet they are doing themselves and the business a huge disservice. By ignoring their mental and emotional health they will impact their cognitive function, their ability to make responsive decisions and keep perspective. For many leaders the ability to adapt from one situation to another, taking in priorty data and making decisions, sensing the mood of the team (Goffee R. , 2006) are critical and these are all enhanced by optimizing PFC health and balance.

Convincing leaders that there is a link between mental and emotional balance and well being and performance is the key to getting their attention. Although courses such as Authentic Leaders (University of Western Australia) focus on helping leaders build self awareness, it is often met with resistance as leaders grapple with the notion of emotional management being important. To many ‘old school’ leaders, the theory is to flog yourself until you retire or burnout. It appears to many somehow weak to think about their own sense of well being. The leaders are looking for ways to improve performance. Technology and systems have developed rapidly to bring speed and adaptability to the workplace. There is more data available, communications are getting faster and decisions are needed quickly. The growing trends of technology fail to match the changes in the way in which we think, feel and act as leaders. An often quoted example of this is the use of the mobile and now the Blackberry. Work no longer finishes when we leave the office, emails, phone calls and texts are instantly sent and many expect an immediate reply. Our brains become overloaded and it is easy to understand how leaders can become more fatigued and under pressure. Emotional regulation is key to building sustainable leadership.

The Four Pillar approach enables leaders to develop personal plans for emotional regulation. As we are each individual with unique needs the four pillars enables leaders to chose to work on strategies that can impact them the most.

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