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Decoding Leadership: The Neuro-anatomy of Successful Leaders

by | Apr 1, 2021 | Diversity, Inclusion, Leadership, Science, Women

A leaders’ ability to function in a complex and uncertain environment requires a higher degree of adaptability and computational power. In a recent study, Mckinsey identified four behaviors that are highly correlated with leadership success. In this article, we will look at the neural anatomy that supports the identified behaviors and describe ways to improve brain performance.

Successful Leaders
The Role of the Prefrontal Cortex

Mckinsey’s global study surveyed 189,000 people from eighty-one organizations to identify the most frequent behaviors of successful leaders. The study found that organizations with strong financial performance were led by leaders who displayed the following behaviors: effective problem solving, are action orientated, seek other’s perspective and are supportive.

These behaviors are supported by higher cognitive functions executed by our most evolved brain region, the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). Within the PFC, we can find the Dorsolateral PFC (DPFC) & the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). The DPFC is a functional area that guides our response to external stimuli. It works with other brain regions to support the execution of planning, working memory, control & inhibition, and other executive functions.

The Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) supports cognitive and emotional systems and plays an important role in the management of emotions & decision-making processes. At the end of the day, effective decision making is the cornerstone of successful leadership.

On the surface these behaviors seem accessible to all of us; however, the PFC is highly sensitive to stress and people’s effectiveness is greatly dependent on their ability to manage stress.

Research at Yale has shown that sporadic mild stress can cause loss of pre-frontal cognitive abilities and chronic stress exposure can change neuronal structure. Therefore, the most important skill a leader must develop is the ability to regulate stress to maintain optimal prefrontal cortex function.

Stress regulation can be accomplished in many ways from exercise routines that elevate heart rate to practicing healthy mind habits. It is crucial to assess the capacity leaders have to manage stress and help them develop management strategies.

Stress – Avoidance Behavior

Interestingly, stress management emerged as a core function that supports the performance of all the behaviors identified in the Mckinsey study.

Stress presents itself in many forms, for some executives its generated from their tendency to avoid conflict or certain tasks. As a coach, I work with executives using cognitive behavioral approaches& biofeedback to manage everyday stressors.

Clients are leaders driven to solve complex problems with the goal to serve their employees. For some, major stressors tend to revolve around avoiding tough conversations that may lead to conflict. For these leaders worrying about keeping relationships comes at a painful cost to their health and effectiveness.

John, GM for a Global Biotech Company, works relentlessly to solve complex problems and is focused on developing his staff. He is highly adept at creating and nurturing relationships which enables him to be a successful influencer. This skill makes him highly valuable to the organization. However, sometimes, he cares too much about keeping relationships intact. While handling disagreements he suffers tremendous self-inflicted stress which causes him sleepless nights. As a result, the next day, he struggles with keeping his mind sharp and is easily irritable.

I taught John to identify his neurobehavioral pattern and apply psychological distance to reframe situations and positively change habitual patterns that produce stress.

What You Can Do
To Optimize Your Prefrontal Cortex

Since scientists have not reached consensus on a single brain training program and each brain is unique, it will take a little experimentation on your part to discover which of these brain-enhancing activities you can make a habit. The bottom line is: step out of your comfort zone and engage in novel activities.

⦁ Aerobic exercise
⦁ Learning a new language
⦁ Meditation
⦁ Executing challenging professional assignments
⦁ Proper nutrition
⦁ Volunteering in an area you are not an expert
⦁ Cognitive training
⦁ Receiving biofeedback

What does learning a new language has to do with brain optimization?

The answer lies in the property of neural networks. The networks are considered distributed systems, meaning that a set of neurons performs several functions. For instance, it’s well documented in the research on language acquisition that the neural networks involved in our ability to control & inhibit behavior are also responsible for language switching. As a result, bilingual children have better executive control compared to monolingual children and this advantages permeates through people’s lifespan.

Adopt Best Practices

To reach high levels of performance, follow the habits of successful leaders. For instance, in recent interviews Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO described his morning routine which includes running & taking courses from Coursera.

Another great example of a leader who is acquainted with the science of brain performance is Mark T. Bertolini, CEO of Aetna. He regularly meditates and offers yoga and meditation classes to all employees. The company-wide initiative has yielded a 28% decrease in stress levels for the participating employees.


Effective decision making & stress management are the core of successful leadership. To learn more strategies read  ““.

To be a successful leader you must resist the urge to work non-stop and ignore your body’s signal for renewal. Get to the core of what causes you stress and learn how to develop stress management strategies.

In what ways are you managing stress to optimize your prefrontal cortex?

Note: This post first appeared on the ICF blog.

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