God gave us a magnificent creation called the brain.Weighing less than three pounds, it wields incredible influence over how well leaders lead. Although we usually call the brain a computer, it’s more like a pharmacy that constantly dispenses drugs (hormones and neurotransmitters) into our bodies and brains which affect our emotions, our thinking, and our leadership. A new field called neuroleadership is helping leaders understand how brain function relates to leadership. It’s a burgeoning field pastors and leaders should pay attention to. My most recent book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry, intersects brain science with biblical principles on leadership.
Are your hormones hijacking your leadership?
Brain researchers have discovered that sustained high levels of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline affect our ability to think clearly, creatively, and decisively, thus diminishing our ability to lead most effectively.
And how do sustained high levels of these hormones get into our system?
They get there from chronic anxiety, when we face long-term stress. It’s akin to a car accelerator getting stuck and revving at high rpm’s for a long period of time. If it continues, the engine will wear out prematurely. In the same way when leaders and pastors stay stressed 24/7, their anxiety, and thus their hormones, get stuck at a high level which dramatically reduces their ability to lead.
Take this simple assessment to discover how many chronic anxiety markers are currently in your life.
- I react and act impulsively when people disagree with me.
- I assume the worst and connect dots where there are none.
- I easily get defensive.
- I don’t seem to be as creative as I once was.
- I often find myself in a mental and emotional fog.
- I lose perspective easily.
- I don’t listen well to others, not because I don’t want to, but because my mind wanders and can’t focus.
- I find it difficult to concentrate.
- I find that others often mirror my defensiveness and reactivity.
How many markers did you find?
If more than two, your hormone accelerator is probably stuck and you aren’t leading at your best. The solution to reducing stress can be a bit complicated. But a wise pastor once advised me to regular take breaks. He shared these three simple statements that have helped me keep my stress hormones in check.
- Divert Daily (take time out to reflect and be still before God every day).
- Withdraw Weekly (take a weekly sabbath).
- Abandon Annually (take a vacation every year when you truly disconnect).
How have you kept your stress hormones under control?
I just read the book Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions by Dr. Carmen Simon. It is probably THE best book on communication I’ve ever read. Every pastor and communicator should read the book. Really! Dr. Simon is uber-smart (two PhD’s), yet she writes on a practical level. I learned a boatload of insight I’m now beginning to apply in my sermon prep. From her book I gleaned these five neglected questions that most pastors seldom if ever consider during their prep. Yet, those questions can profoundly impact how well your listeners apply what you teach.
5 Neglected Questions Every Pastor should Ask During Sermon Prep
- What cues am I considering that could jog my listener’s memory to apply my message during the next week?
- Dr. Simon explains that when we speak, we hope that at some point in the future a listener will act upon our message. And at that future point three mental processes occur. Cues help a listener notice something that relates to the intended new belief or behavior. The listener will search his memory for what the speaker/preacher suggested he do. And, he (hopefully) will execute on his intentions. All this happens in a fraction of a second.
- Application: Build into your message cues that might prompt your listener to remember what you said and motivate him or her to do it. I recently handed out small red stickers shaped like a stop sign. The STOP is an acronym related to ways to process anxious moments. I hope that when people see the sticker or a STOP sign, that cue will prompt them to act.
- What kind of memory do I hope to engage in my listener, gist or verbatim memory?
- Gist memory is when we remember the general idea or sense of something in the past. Verbatim memory is word-for-word. And gist memory lasts longer than verbatim memory, although both are important.
- Application: As you prepare your message be clear about which kind of memory you hope your listener will draw upon. Adjust your message accordingly.
- Have I inadvertently planned for my listener to remember the wrong point(s)?
- Multiple factors impact how well people remember our messages. They include novelty, emotion, story, distinctiveness, social impact, and relevance. Sometimes we can inadvertently make a minor point stand out so much that the major points get lost. Clarify your most cogent points and make sure that those stand out above the minor ones.
- Application: Evaluate the word pictures, jokes, and stories you use. Make sure they reinforce your main points. Better yet, focus them on the one or two key take-aways. Ask yourself, “If my listener only remembered 10% of my message, what 10% would I want him to remember?”
- Do I appreciate the fact that for my listener to really ‘get it,’ he or see has to periodically tune me out during my talk/sermon?
- I tend to struggle when I don’t see people pay constant attention to me when I teach. I used to assume that they were bored with what I was saying (and certainly many have been and are currently bored). However, Dr. Simon points out that people go in and out of paying attention to us every 12 to 18 seconds. When that happens, they carry out an internal dialogue with themselves by formulating meaning to what we are saying and hopefully in doing so, make personal application. When that happens, the brain provides a stronger chemical signal that helps the memory ‘stick’ better. So, you actually want your listener to periodically tune out.
- Application: The next time you’re speaking and it looks like someone is briefly tuning out, remind yourself that they are probably consolidating a memory about what you said. Even if they are bored, this kind of thinking will help minimize the negative self talk (i.e., “Oh no! I’m boring them.)
- Have I considered that I want my listener to remember both in the past (what I said) and in the future (future intentions called prospective memory).
- In the same area in our brain where we reflect over the past, we plan for the future. So, when we reminisce or plan, we’re drawing from similar kinds of information. When you prepare your talks, keep this fact in mind. You don’t want your listener to simply reminisce about what you said. You want them to act upon it in the future, to remember a future intention. If they only remember what you said and don’t connect it to a future change in belief or behavior (to become more like Christ), what you said isn’t very helpful.
- Application: As you craft your message, think about how you can help your listeners anticipate the future. Perhaps take a minute toward the end of your talk and ask them to role play in their minds what you are asking them to apply during the coming week. For example, if your message is on conflict resolution, have them role play in their minds how they would resolve a conflict with someone.
If you communicate to groups of people in any way, Impossible to Ignore is a must-read. And, as part of her book, Dr. Simon also provides a nifty template against which you can evaluate your talks. It’s quite helpful.
God created sleep not only to cure sleepiness, but to serve our bodies and brains in many beneficial ways. Unfortunately, many leaders, especially pastors, try to lead without getting adequate sleep and live with a sleepy leader’s brain. When we don’t get enough sleep, our brains don’t work as well. Thus, we don’t lead at our best.
So what happens when we don’t get enough sleep, besides feeling sleepy? Here’s what the experts tell us happens to our brains when we don’t get adequate sleep.
One of the greatest strengths a leader can posses is his (or her) ability keep his emotions in check, to stop reacting. However, when we feel rejected, hurt, or fearful, we often react, get visibly angry, or becoming defensive. Those responses can hinder God’s work in our lives and hurt our leadership. So what can we do?
Scripture consistently speaks against allowing anger (or any other negative emotion) to control us.
- “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,… (Eph. 4.26)
- Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. (Eph. 4.31)
- But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. (Col. 3.8)
- My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. (James 1.19-20)
But, how do we control these feelings that sometimes spring upon us without our even thinking about them? Often when we feel angry or fearful, we believe that suppressing those feelings will reduce their power. On the contrary, it does the opposite. Neuroscientists have discovered that when we try to suppress an emotion it negatively affects us in two ways.
- It diminishes our memory and the ability to see and remember details of an event.
- Most importantly, suppressing the emotion actually does the opposite. Rather than helping us control it, it actually diminishes the internal resources available for us to respond to the situation in a biblical way. Scientists are now discovering what the Bible said long ago: So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. (Gal. 5.16)
The next time one of these emotions begins to control your thinking and behavior, consider apply the steps behind the acronym CART, a simple way to control an unhealthy expression of an emotion.
- “C” stands for change the situation. If you can appropriately change or avoid your situation so that you can avoid what could cause the emotion, do so. This is the easiest way to ‘nip it in the bud’ before it becomes full blown. Recently I became very angry about what someone did. I was not able to remove myself from the situation because the act was done at a distance. So, the issue was in my head rather than in physical close proximity. I had to move to the next step.
- “A” stands for attend to a distraction. If some event prompts one of these emotions, distract yourself. Look for something else to think about or focus on. In the above situation my anger was rising to a boiling point. I then tried to distract myself by listening to an mp3 talk on neuroleadership which somewhat moderated the emotion. However, I kept tuning out the talk and tuning into my internal self-talk that kept the emotion active. I then applied the next step.
- “R” stands for reappraise the situation. After I realized that my mp3 distraction could not consistently lessen my emotion, I sat back in my chair, closed my eyes, and for a few moments thought about what I was thinking about. This is called mindfulness. I then intentionally began to look at the situation differently. I reminded myself that my love for this person should trump my anger toward her. I told myself that my anger would not change her, much less facilitate a reasonable conversation with her about her actions. As I began to mentally prioritize my relationship with her over her action, the emotion’s intensity began to complete this process of regulating this emotion.
- “T” stands for temper my visible response. At first I tried to suppress my emotion, which only increased it (as I mentioned above). However, after I admitted my anger and reappraised the situation (R), the Lord helped me avoid a potentially unhealthy and damaging reaction toward this person.
So, the next time an emotion begins to get the best of you, toss it into a CART.
What has worked for you to control your emotions in a healthy way?
I have a passion for the brain and how applying newly discovered brain science can impact leadership and spiritual growth. I even wrote a book about it. Now into my sixth decade of life, I want to maximize my brain power as I (and everybody else) faces inevitable cognitive decline. In this post I share the bad news about what aging does to our brain (starting in the 20’s) and then share 3 morning habits you can build into your routine to boost your brain power and stay mentally sharp.
The bad news about aging and the brain
Unfortunately, just as we can’t avoid death and taxes, we can’t avoid how aging affects our brains. Here’s what happens to our brains as we grow older.
- Our brains literally shrink. We lose about 5% of our brain matter per decade beginning in our 40’s. In fact, our frontal lobes, where executive functions like short-term memory, abstract thinking, and emotional control lie, reach their peak in our early 20’s.
- Our brains slow down. Brain cells (neurons) work primarily through a chemical-to-electrical process. When the neuron ‘fires’ it sends an electrical impulse down a fiber called an axon. Like a wire with insulation, material called myelin also wraps around an axon providing insulation. As we age myelin thins which slows firing which in turn slows mental speed.
- Our brains don’t remember as well. Over time memory fades due to loss of neurons, especially in the hippocampus, an area crucial to memory. And our ability to temporarily hold information in our minds, called working memory, degrades as well.
- Command of our vocabulary shrinks. A typical 30-year-old has command of an average of 30,000 words whereas an 80-year-old has command of only about 10,000.
- Peripheral vision diminishes, hearing degrades, yada, yada. Enough of the bad news.
Even with this bad news, science is now showing us ways that we can slow cognitive decline well into our later years. Everybody is not doomed to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
3 Morning Habits that can Boost your Brain Power
- Brain training
- I just added this to my morning routine. Several companies provide software for your smart phone or computer to help train your brain. Several peer-reviewed studies now show that these brain games don’t simply help you get better at playing the games. Rather, scientists are discovering a clear crossover effect beneficial to cognitive health. I use brainHQ from Posit Science. I’m now doing about 20 minutes of brain training 5-6 days a week. For brain training to work, it must tax your brain and you must keep doing it. Doing a game here and there probably won’t make much difference.
- For years research has shown that exercise benefits our body. But recent research has discovered that it benefits our brains as well. When we exercise it causes our brains to release a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain. It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. To maximize BDNF, the experts recommend that you exercise at 60-75% of your maximum heart rate for 30 minutes 3-5 times each week.
- Mindfulness is a spiritual discipline akin to biblical meditation that I practice as part of my daily devotional time. It’s setting aside a time to be still before God to be in His presence in the present moment. It’s not emptying our mind, but filling our mind with thoughts of Him and His Word. It helps us disengage from automatic thoughts, feelings, memories and reactions and simply be in God’s presence. Last year over 400 studies were published that showed multiple body and brain benefits to mindfulness including increased brain volume in the memory and in the self regulatory areas and decreased volume in the brain’s fight and flight centers. I also use an app that reminds me to take short one minute mindfulness breaks throughout the day.
So, even though aging naturally diminishes brain function, a disciplined approach to brain healthy habits can keep your brain sharp for God, for others, and for you.
How do you keep your brain in shape?