How a Leader’s Brain Works, Part 2

In my previous post I explained how two basic systems operate in a leader’s brain. In today’s post I give an example to illustrate how this process might work in real life. Here’s an excerpt, however, to bring you up to speed.

“The brain’s overall operational process incorporates two sub-processes: the X-system, from the ‘x’ in the word reflexive and the C-system, from the ‘c’ in the word reflective (Lieberman, 2006). The X-system engages the parts of the brain that act spontaneously and impulsively (our emotional centers, the low road). The C-system engages parts of the brain that act with intention and think before acting, our thinking center (the prefrontal cortex, the high road route). This system also helps regulate emotional reactivity.”

Let’s say I’m hiking in the woods and I see what I think is a snake I’m about to step on. My short route response, called the low road (Foley, 2003) quickly shuttles information to my emotional center (limbic system) and then to my peripheral nervous system. Among many body responses, the peripheral nervous system increases blood flow and respiration and instantaneously directs the muscles in my foot to avoid stepping on the snake. It helps me quickly respond to the perceived danger.

At the same time the long route process (the high road) sends that signal to my sensory cortex and then to my thinking center. It then recruits the brain’s memory center, to check for any data about snakes already stored in the brain’s memory. It then sends its assessment back to the emotional center. Because my emotional center processed this as a snake, my body has already instantaneously reacted to direct me to plant my foot in a different place, any place but on the snake.

However, as my thinking center assesses the situation it compares it to maps already in the brain about a snake’s color, size, movement, and so on. In relative terms it’s slower than the low road, but only a fraction of a second slower. It may determine that the rattlesnake was simply a coiled vine that my emotional center interpreted as a snake. As a result, it begins to down-regulate my emotions and my body’s response. I now don’t have to worry because vines don’t bite. Although my body is still tensed and my heart rate has jumped, my thinking center now tells my body it can calm down and not be alarmed. In diagram form it looks like this.

How a leader's brain works, part 2. Dr. Charles Stone

This same process can happen in a meeting with your board. Someone may say something that immediately feels like a threat (the low road, the X-system). But as your thinking center assesses what he says it helps you realize that his words don’t truly present a threat. So instead of internally stiffening up in fear or verbally reacting in defense, your brain can help you calm down (the high road, the C-system) so that you can stay fully engaged in the conversation. The key is to pay attention to these internal signals. The low road provides the quick response, needed at times, and the high road response, although slower, more accurately assesses the situation.

This same process occurs with any intense emotion. Your brain will act the same way if you unexpectedly bump into Tom Cruise or Gwyneth Paltrow at the grocery store or even meeting someone you don’t know someone at a party. As with seeing a snake, your heartbeat will jump, your respiration will increase, and your blood pressure will rise. You brain’s emotional center will initiate the stress response even if our ‘survival’ is not threatened, although not looking dumb in front of Tom might qualify as a survival situation.

In my 33 plus years in ministry leadership I’ve sometimes taken the low road and reacted in anger to a staff person, become defensive at someone’s critical comment, or acted like a jerk in the heat of the moment. In those cases, my brain’s X-system overrode its C-system and I gave in to my emotions. I didn’t wait long enough for my thinking brain to inform my actions so that I could respond in a Spirit-directed way.

When the X-system gets overloaded, two processes occur that can suppress the C-system: hormones enter our blood stream and neurotransmitters flood our brain. When that happens we can respond in these ways.

  • Emotional accelerators can diminish our impulse control.
  • The reactive parts of our brain can take over and we can become defensive.
  • Objectivity can diminish.
  • We don’t listen well to others because our brains can’t concentrate on other’s viewpoints without prematurely framing our own responses.

And the writer of Proverb speaks to what happens when we act impulsively rather than respond thoughtfully. (NIV)

  • It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way. (19.2)
  • It is a trap for a man to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider his vows. (20.25)
  • There is more hope for a fool than for someone who speaks without thinking. (29.20)

What indicators in people you’ve been around evidence that their X-system overruled their C-system? What does the X-system look like in leaders?


“I just learned how two systems in our brain affect how we act and lead.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


Related post:


References:

Foley, D. (2003) Emotions and the Brain: Fear. Science. Available from: [Accessed 7 March 2013].

Lieberman, M.D. (2006) Social Cognitive Neuroscience: A Review of Core Processes. Annu. Rev. Psychol., (58), pp.259-89.

How a Leader’s Brain Works, Part 1

In this two-part post on how a leader’s brain works (part 2 follows Sunday), I describe how two fundamental brain processes that affect leadership.

First, we can view the brain functioning with an overarching organizational principle and a fundamental operational process. Dr. Evian Gordon, a neuroscientist, developed what he calls the Integrate Model (Gordon et al., 2008). This model describes the brain functioning around a basic organizing principle, Minimize Danger/threat-Maximize Reward. The terms, toward and away, correspond to danger/threat and reward. The image that comes to mind for a person experiencing an away response would be his fists clenched as if to fight, his arms crossed, or his arm stretched out with his palm facing you as if to say, “Stop!” An image for a toward response might be someone with her arms extended to you as if to say, “Welcome!”

In other words, our brains tend to operate in a conscious and an unconscious mode that either seeks out reward (a toward response that is open, energized, and willing) or tries to avoid danger/threat (an away response which is defensive, fearful, or closed). I think the apostle Paul practiced this concept as he focused on the future. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3.13-14, NIV)

The brain’s overall operational process incorporates two sub-processes: the X-system, from the ‘x’ in the word reflexive and the C-system, from the ‘c’ in the word reflective (Lieberman, 2006). The X-system engages the parts of the brain that act spontaneously and impulsively (our emotional centers). The C-system engages parts of the brain that act with intention and think before acting, our thinking center (the prefrontal cortex). This system also helps regulate emotional reactivity. This chart briefly summarizes the fundamental differences between the two.

When we combine the organizational principle with the operational processes, here’s how our brain works, simply described.

When we face danger (a threat), the brain processes information in two directions: the short route, sometimes called the low road, and the long route, sometimes called the high road. The thalamus plays a critical role as a master information relay, or middleman, because all information from and external stimulus (or an internal self generated one) flows through it. It shuttles the information about this stimulus to other parts of the brain. Here’s what happens, all in a split second.

  • Information about the threat first enters our brain through our sense organs and travels to the thalamus, the master relay, which shuttles information in two directions, toward the emotional center (short route) and toward the sensory cortex and then to the higher thinking centers (long route). The information gets to the emotional center slightly quicker than it makes it to the thinking centers.
  • As the thalamus relays the emotional content to the emotional center it sends the non-emotional content through the memory center (the hippocampus) to the brain’s thinking center (the prefrontal cortex) where it assesses and compares the new information to previously stored knowledge.
  • If it finds any prior knowledge, it sends it back to the memory center to incorporate this new information.
  • New mental maps then get combined with old ones and are then sent to memory storage.
  • By this time, the emotional center may have already directed the body to respond. Even so, the thinking center will weigh in at some point to either dampen the emotional center, confirm the emotional center’s response, or direct the body to do something in response to the stimulus.

In my next post, I’ll give an example of how this works in real life.


“I just learned how the leader’s brain works.” (Tweet this quote by clicking here).


Related post: When Pastors Lead from their Lizard Brain


References:

Gordon, E., Barnett, K.J., Cooper, N.J., Tran, N. & Williams, L.M. (2008) An ‘Integrative Neuroscience’ Platform: Application to Profiles of Negativity and Positivity Bias. Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, 7 (3), pp.354-366.

Lieberman, M.D. (2006) Social Cognitive Neuroscience: A Review of Core Processes. Annu. Rev. Psychol., (58), pp.259-89.

When Pastors Misplace their Identity: 10 Probing Questions

“No one is more influential in your life than you are, because no one talks to you more than you do.” When I heard this quote by Paul Tripp while I listened to his book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry it caused me to pause and reflect. He’s right. No one talks to me more than I talk to myself. A corollary to his quote might be this. “We become more like who we listen to. If what we tell ourselves about our identity is false, then we develop a false identity.” In this post I suggest 10 question that might reveal when pastors misplace their identity.

How do you know if you’ve wrapped your identity around your church, ministry, or preaching rather than around Christ? Consider these 10 questions.

  • Would I feel aimless if I faced a period of time when I wasn’t vocationally working in a church?
  • Do I see the need for grace in the lives of others more than I see the need of that same grace in my life?
  • Have I subtly allowed pride to infiltrate my soul because I know a lot about the Bible, have a theological degree, or pastor a growing church?
  • Do I equate ministry success with God’s endorsement of my lifestyle (a thought from Paul Tripp)?
  • When I meet someone, do I find my unspoken self-talk focused on what he or she thinks of me?
  • Have I based my identity more on the horizontal (ministry success) than the vertical (my personal relationship with Jesus)?
  • Is my heart stirred more by compliments from others about my preaching, increasing attendance, or recognition from others more than the greatness, grandeur, and glory of Christ?
  • If attendance is low on Sunday, is it hard to shake a sense the following week that I’ve failed or that I’ve let God down?
  • Do I struggle with jealous feelings when I hear about the success of another pastor or church?
  • Do I find myself “burning the candle at both ends” to keep the ministry going?

What do you think about pastoral identity? Do you think misplaced identity is a problem among pastors? What questions would you add to this list that might be telling of misplaced identity?

If these questions have stirred you to think more deeply about your identity, consider reading Paul Tripp’s blog post about this subject here. And, I highly recommend reading his book as well.


“I just read 10 questions that a pastor might ask himself to discover if he’s misplaced his identity.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


Related posts:

Familiarity Blindness in your Church: 7 Ways to Cure It

Familiarity blindness is a malady that infects us all. It happens when we become so familiar with something that we no longer consciously see it. In fact, the brain does this all the time so it doesn’t have to work as hard. If you drive to church or work the same route each time, you no longer pay attention to familiar buildings, signs, and other landmarks along the way. Although our eyes still see them, they’ve become so familiar that the brain doesn’t pay conscious attention to them. However, when something is out of place on your drive, a detour, for example, you immediately pay attention. Familiarity blindness is common in many churches today. In this post I give 7 ways to cure it.

Familiarity blindness afflicts many church ministries. We get accustomed to doing things a certain way, become so familiar with our surroundings, or slip into a ministry rut that we become oblivious to their staleness or their need for change. It happens in marriage as well. We can become so familiar with our spouses that we can take then for granted and not treat them as kindly as we once did.

Jesus described this phenomenon in his response to people who knew Mary and Joseph and couldn’t believe that He was a carpenter’s son. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” (Luke 4.24, NIV) Those from His hometown had become so familiar with Him that they missed seeing Him as the Messiah.

Since this problem easily carries into our ministries, how can we cure it? Consider these ideas.

  1. Invite someone with fresh eyes to visit your church service. Perhaps a fellow pastor, a consultant, or a neighbor. Afterwards ask them to give you honest feedback about their experience, both good and bad.
  2. Evaluate the order in which you present the various parts of your worship service. Do you do the same thing in the same order each week? Could someone who has gone to your church for a while tell you the order without even thinking about it? If so, you may want to consider changing up the order. Surprise and novelty helps people pay better attention.
  3. Go and visit another church. What do you experience that feels disconcerting, unclear, or unnecessary? Do you see similar barriers in your own church? Go back to your church with the same evaluative eyes and make necessary changes.
  4. Spend time with new people in your church. Ask them what they liked. Ask them what they would change. Ask them to be honest. Pay attention to what you learn. Build on the good. Modify the not-so-good.
  5. Evaluate your annual church calendar. Does your church or its ministries do the exact same events and ministries year after year? Certainly repeating events that work is good. But, do you do some events just because you’ve always done them? Do they have the same spiritual impact they once did? Do you need to drop or modify them?
  6. Does your leadership culture invite honest feedback and evaluation about your ministry? Do you regularly evaluate ministry initiatives and events? Or, is the planning process over when the event is over? Learning cultures will ruthlessly evaluate what they do so they can do better next time.
  7. Pray. Though last in this list it is not least. Ask the Lord to show you what you’ve become blind to.

What would you add to this list to help cure familiarity blindness in a church?


“I just learned 7 helpful ways to cure familiarity blindness in my church.” (to tweet this quote click here)


Related posts:

13 Top Quotes from the Willow Creek Leadership Summit #WLS17

Every year I attend the Willow Creek Leadership Summit at a local video venue with over 50 of our leaders. This year did not disappoint. It was probably the best Summit for my team and me. In this post I list the top 13 quotes from the speakers. If you’ve not been to a Summit, make plans to attend one. It’s a great investment in leaders.

Top GLS quotes:

Andy Stanley:

  • The next generation’s good ideas seldom come from the previous generation.
  • Replace ‘how’ with ‘wow.’ (He’s referring to encouraging people with their ideas rather than discouraging them with, “So how in the world could we do that?”)
  • My greatest contribution to the world may not be what I do but who I raise.

Lazlo Bock, senior advisor Google:

  • Connect work to meaning.

Juliet Funt, CEO Whitespace at Work:

  • We all need white spaces which are strategic pauses between activities
  • The four thieves of productivity are drive that leads to compulsion, excellence that leads to perfection, information overload, and activity that leads to frenzy.
  • 4 crucial whitespace simplification questions:
    • Is there anything I can let go of?
    • Where is good enough, good enough?
    • What do I truly need to know?
    • What deserves my attention?

Markus Buckingham, author and consultant:

  • The two biggest areas that motivate employees:
    • At work I know what is expected of me.
    • At work I have a chance to use my strengths.

Sam Adeyemi, senior pastor Daystar Christian Center, Nigeria

  • Great leaders change other people’s view of themselves.
  • Leaders don’t attract people they want but people like them.

Angela Duckworth, author of GRIT

  • The Definition of GRIT: sustained passion and perseverance for long-term goals.
  • Two key indicators you have grit: you are a hard worker and you finish what you begin.

Gary Haugen, CEO International Justice Mission

  • Be careful of being more impressed with bad men that our good God. (He’s referring to the temptation to get caught up in all the bad things happening around us while forgetting that God is bigger.)

If you went to the summit, what were your biggest take-aways?