Building your leadership brain stamina

by Ingra du Buisson-Narsai, NeuroCapital and Dr Anton Verwey, Engage Leadership.

Neuroscience provides some hard evidence that leaders who build brain stamina are smarter, more motivated, more creative and more engaged, resulting in superior performance and enhanced business outcomes (Gordon, 2000). (This is one of the reasons why we at Knowledge Resources will be hosting a Neuroscience In The World Of Work Seminar on the 15 September 2014 at the The Hyatt Regency Hotel in Johannesburgclick here to learn more.)

In this blog article, we focus on specific things leaders can do to enhance their leadership brain stamina and their attention span at work.

Get reframing

Self-regulating our emotions is important because it maximises our brain resources. How leaders respond to stress or other emotional triggers depends on whether they take a high road or a low road in their response. The high road means that the emotional stimulus goes through the sensory thalamus, and then via the cortex, to the amygdala, which generates the emotional response. When the response is via the low road, the stimulus goes straight from the sensory thalamus to the amygdala without traversing the cortex. This leader responds in a very emotional way, without thinking first.

However, leaders can deploy various emotional regulation strategies to self- regulate the impact that emotions can have on their brain stamina. The predominant model of emotional regulation strategies is set out below and was developed by James Gross (2008). It will be explored in a bit more detail.

Emotional regulation strategies:

  1. Situation Selection (opting out)
  2. Situation Modification (changing the situation)
  3. Attention Deployment (focusing on something else)
  4. Cognitive Change: Labelling (putting feelings into words)
  5. Response Modulation (expression vs. suppression)

The first three options relate to before the emotion arises. Situation selection refers to avoiding the situation, whereas situation modification involves modifying the situation to avoid stress or negative emotion. The third strategy entails attention deployment that involves focusing one’s attention on a different aspect of the situation or on something else.

Once the emotion kicks in, there are a further three choices. Leaders can express the emotion, suppress it or reappraise it. Expressing it can be damaging and inappropriate in a workplace. Suppression, in turn, has been found to reduce memory and increase the stress felt by the individual, as well as those around them, so this is not an ideal choice either. The key strategies, once an emotion has been felt, are to label the emotion, or else to make a cognitive change by reappraising it to modulate the response.

For milder emotions, the very process of labelling an emotion serves to dampen the limbic activation and our emotional response. Thus, practice assigning words to emotional states (putting feelings into words) to reduce arousal once the emotion kicks in. For example, prior to a presentation, a leader may label an emotion he is experiencing as “just being nervous”. By doing this, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is activated into cognitive thinking and decreases limbic activation (emotional responses) – much like a “seesaw” works.

Strong emotions generated by certainty and autonomy threats may need more than labelling to be managed and require the more involved strategy of reappraisal. Reappraisal reduces the activity in the amygdala and insula and overall the feelings around the emotion. Reappraisal has a stronger emotional braking effect on the brain, so it reduces impulsivity, improves the leader’s cognitive abilities, and allows the leader to respond more appropriately. Frequent use of reappraisal has the long-term effect of generating an enhanced control of emotion and interpersonal functioning. Positive re-appraisal strategies include Benefit-Finding, Acceptance, Refocusing, and Putting things into Perspective.

Certainty (being able to predict the future) and autonomy, the feeling of control, are primary rewards or threats for the brain. Goal setting is a strategy to use to reduce certainty and authority threats. In fact, most accomplishments, great or small, have started with an intention that became a goal. Goals are generated either internally (within the person) or externally (regulated by others, normally management within an organisational context). According to Lieberman (2007) the neural signature of the intrinsic goal system is the medial PFC and the extrinsic system recruits the lateral PFC. Various outcome studies have shown that in order to achieve and maintain personal well-being at work, intrinsic goal achievement needs to be activated (Sheldon et al, 2004). Thus, the higher the integration between extrinsic vs intrinsic goals, the more inspired from within a leader is and the less he needs motivation from without to achieve goals.

Get mindful

A key way to build perceived control into a leader’s life is through mindfulness – a strange concept to use in business but it has been shown that mindfulness leads to increases in creativity, kindness to others, increased perseverance, and reduced stress (Brown et al, 2003; 2007; Cresswell et al, 2007).

According to Brown et al (2007), mindfulness has three essential qualities: It is about being open to sensory information. It’s about paying attention. It’s about doing so in the present tense. Mindfulness is a state that can become a trait if activated and practiced frequently. According to Farb et al (2007), there are two distinct modes of experiencing situations and which are anti-correlated. Thus, if the one mode is off, then the other one is on. These two modes are set out in the table below.

Table: The Narrative and Direct Experience Modes (Farb et al, 2007)

Narrative Mode circuit Direct Experience Mode Circuit
Operating on autopilot or procedural memory. Focus is predominantly on the past and projecting into the future. Processing incoming data as it happens. Thus experiencing the present moment as it is.
Circuitry Involved: conceptual, memory (hippocampus), limbic (friend or foe decisions), medial PFC (narrative self-referential) Circuitry Involved: Somatosensory Cortex, Insula (internal visceral experience)
Leads to fixation on story line, can lead to state of hyper arousal and even cognitive shut down Leads to better self-regulation ability to take in a lot more new data, which increases reflective thinking, insight, introspections, and kindness towards others whilst reducing negative biological effects, like hypertension.

According to Farb et al (2007, these two forms of self-awareness are habitually integrated but can be dissociated through attentional training: the self across time and in the present moment.

Mindfulness is about being able to be aware of which mode you are in and then being able to switch to the circuit that is most beneficial for the task at hand. Thus, mindfulness enables leaders to turn off the brain’s narrative circuit and activate direct experience, giving leaders a more accurate perception of reality and allowing them to be more flexible in how they respond to self and others (Hassed, 2008). »

Dr. Dan Siegel refers to mindfulness practice as “good brain hygiene” or “brain flossing” that is as important as brushing our teeth. When trying to adopt mindfulness as a new habit, there are simple and clever ways to begin to make the practice routine:

  • Mindful Breathing: One of the most important things to learn in the workplace today is how to focus. Mindful breathing can help you strengthen your attention. If you do this exercise, for example, 10 minutes before you go to work, or at your desk, you are changing your brain. You’re heightening your ability to concentrate hours later. Sit upright, close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. Don’t try to control your breath, just let it be natural and easy but be aware of your breath. Notice the full inhalation, the full exhalation. See if you can feel it coming and going through your nostrils, or feel the rise and fall of your belly. When you notice that you’ve been distracted, simply start with the next breath. Tune in to any sensation any way you can. Take in sensory data. Be fully aware of the breath. Just keep your attention anchored there. Don’t aim to process the data. Keep breathing in, and breathing out. Whenever your mind wanders, just bring it back to your breath. Watch the full inhalation, the full exhalation. Stay with the breath. Use it as your anchor for attention. Try it on your own for a few minutes
  • Mindful Driving: Do mini-meditations or quick body scans at red lights while driving.
  • Mindful @ work: Use a cue, for example, when you open a door, go into an elevator, just before each coffee break, or at certain times during the day. Take 3 deep breaths (focusing on the sensations in your body). Then step into a new moment. This use of cues can help the attention leadership behaviour to become an embedded habit over time.
  • Mindful emailing: When you typed an email. Take a pause and take 3 breaths (3 x in/out cycle). Focus on your breath. Now read the email again from the perspective of the receiver. Amend the email where necessary.
  • Mindful meetings: Attention leadership can alter the tone of the work environment in subtle and overt ways, making it a potential agent of positive change in organisations. A “freeze-frame” at the beginning of a meeting to state the “intent” for the meeting can focus attention.

It’s really so simple and in some ways so hard, because the mind wants to wander. In a way, this basic movement of mindfulness is anchoring your attention, keeping it there, noticing when your mind wanders because it’s going to, bringing it back and starting over. The longer you stay with your breath, the more relaxed your body becomes. It’s a side effect of that full attention and letting go all those worries that keep us on edge and distracted (source:


This article focused on cognitive strategies that leaders could develop to stay cool under pressure and to maintain their grit through inspired goals. Mindfulness is a capacity leaders can build to become more aware of current reality that enables adaptability to change. Adaptability is a corner stone of successful 21st century leadership. Finally, as John Kabat-Zinn (the founder of mindfulness based stress reduction) says “mindlessness is not simply innocent or insensitive, quaint or clueless. Much of the time it is actively harmful… Both to oneself and to others.”

To learn more about the Neuroscience In The World Of Work Seminar on the 15 September 2014 at the The Hyatt Regency Hotel in Johannesburgclick here now.


  • Brown KW, Ryan RM and Creswell JD, (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects, Psychological Inquiry 18, 211-237.
  • Brown KW and Ryan RM (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 822-848.
  • Creswell JD, Way BM, Eisenberger NI and Lieberman MD (2007). Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labelling. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69, 560-565.
  • Farb, A.S.; & Segal, Z.V.; (2007). Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 2007 December; 2(4): 313-322.
  • Hassed, C., (2008). Mindfulness, wellbeing and performance. NeuroLeadership Journal Issue One. Gross, James J. “Emotion regulation.” Handbook of emotions 3 (2008): 497-513.
  • Lieberman, Matthew D. “Social cognitive neuroscience: a review of core processes.” Annu. Rev. Psychol. 58 (2007): 259-289.
  • Siegel, D. J. (2007a) The Mindful Brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York, W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Sheldon, K. M., Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L., & Kasser, T. (2004). The independent effects of goal contents and motives on well-being: it’s both what you pursue and why you pursue it. Pers Soc.

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