Physical health is often promoted and encouraged, from ads in social media to scientific articles that tout the many benefits. While physical fitness is essential, mental health is equally as important. A healthy brain is a machine with lots of parts, and all these parts are required for leaders to be empathetic, compassionate, and innovative.
What does your brain really look like?
While producing the Make Me A Leader documentary, I was fortunate to meet up with Dr. Robert Johnson, Medical Director for the Amen Clinics. We discussed brain health and optimal performance for leaders. The state of our brain has a massive impact on our moods, our emotional intelligence, our leadership abilities, and our interactions with other people. But how can we assess the health of our brain? You can’t exactly look in the mirror and see how your brain is doing.
Fortunately, neuroscience has given us tools to do what was once deemed impossible—we can obtain images of the brain to see how healthy it is or isn’t. Various imaging techniques are now available, many at your local doctor’s office, that can examine activity levels and blood flow.
Surface scans look at the outside cortex of your brain, and these are very sensitive indicators for overall brain health. Active scans examine emotional and stress trauma circuitry in your mind, which often manifest with anxiety and poor stress management.
Dr. Johnson and I also discussed how the frontal lobe is one of the main areas that relate to empathy. Injuries to this area, even seemingly minor ones like whiplash, can cause neuronal shearing, where the long, slender (and fragile) axons in your neurons can be stretched and compressed. But you don’t even need physical damage to have problems with empathy. Chronic stress levels lead to an increase in a chemical called cortisol, which can kill your brain cells.
One of the things we know from leadership research is that emotional intelligence is as or more important than IQ for an effective leader.
Dr. Robert Johnson
One of the keys to brain health is to seek a balance for all the demands on your time, attention and brain power. If you have a ‘fast and furious’ type of lifestyle, always on the go at work and play, you may develop something known as negativity bias. This is when the anxiety centers of your brain are overactive and change how you perceive things around you. The pace of your life has a direct impact on your ability to be empathetic and to successfully work and communicate and interact with others.
Relating emotional intelligence and the health of your brain
Emotional intelligence (EI) was identified decades ago as a dimension of intelligence. More recent research has solidified the link between EI and leadership effectiveness. Effective leaders have to walk the tightrope between hard and soft leadership skills, and while being task-oriented is necessary to run a successful company, a leader’s emotional intelligence can positively or negatively impact the business as well (Dabke, 2016).
The ‘soft’ skills needed to work with others include being compassionate and empathetic. But what can you do to ensure that your brain is healthy, and ready to handle these skills? It’s a little trickier than stepping on a scale, but there are options that you can explore to find out if the cogs in your mind are working properly.
Taking charge of your own mental health
- Consider imaging. To see the big picture, you should consider actually getting a picture—of your brain, that is. Many local offices now have the technology to get you started. These procedures are painless and can yield massive amounts of information about your brain.
- Feed your brain. Your brain does not need soda. It doesn’t require massive amounts of fatty, fried foods. It needs colorful fruits and vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats, in moderation. Your brain is what you eat, so take a look at your dinner plate tonight.
- Get plenty of rest. Your brain needs to rest. It needs more than adequate sleep. It needs time to relax and daydream. Finding this time is critical, each and every day. If you spend thirty minutes or an hour working your physical body, you can take time to let your brain have a break, too.
- Consider meditation or yoga. If you need help relaxing and unwinding, techniques such as meditation and yoga can give you a healthy way to calm the whirlwind in your mind. There are many resources online, or if you prefer meeting in a group, you can search online for classes in your area. A bonus—check with your human resources department. Sometimes these programs are provided, or the cost is covered!
- Self-reflect every so often. Sit down with a journal outside, and jot down things that have happened lately. Then, read your notes without criticism or anger or judgment. Are you happy with your life at the moment? Think about what would make you more content, and then work to reach those goals.
Being a strong leader requires a strong, healthy brain. An anxious, stressed, burned-out brain will not inspire other people or lend an empathetic ear. You’ll be waspish and probably snap at others. Your brain health, like your physical health, is an ongoing saga—you’ll always need to work on it. Slowing down and smelling the roses, so to speak, can be a significant first step to a healthy mind.
Dabke, Deepika. (2016). Impact of Leaders Emotional Intelligence and Transformational Behavior on Perceived Leadership Effectiveness: A Multiple Source View. Business Perspectives and Research. 4. 27-40. 10.1177/2278533715605433.