Is this Leadership’s Missing Ingredient? (neuroleadership)

Whether we lead a church ministry, a para-church organization, or run a business, Christian leaders want to lead at our best. Books, leadership seminars, coaching, and mentoring can all help us grow our skills. I’ve used all three to develop mine. Recently, though, I’ve realized an emerging and rapidly growing field is filling a gap in spiritual leadership. It’s called neuroleadership. I explain it in this post.


So what is neuroleadership? Essentially, neuroleadership takes what neuroscience is discovering about the brain and applies it to the art of spiritually leading. You can see a cool animation here by clicking on “What is neuroleadership?” David Rock, author of a great book, Your Brain at Work, coined the term.

Interestingly, the bible affirms neuroleadership principles. The word ‘mind’ appears over 140 times in scripture. Solomon writes in Proverbs that as we think so we are. The Gospel writers tell us to love God with all of our hearts and souls and minds and strength. And the Apostle Paul reminds us that we experience true transformation when we renew our minds. Curt Thompson who wrote Anatomy of the Soul writes that neuroscience is much like a magnifying glass to help us see things we may not otherwise have seen. But a magnifying glass is only as good as the light that illuminates the object we are looking at. That light, for a Christian, is God’s Word.

When pastors and Christian leaders learn and apply neuroleadership principles, they will develop into competent leaders who . . .

  • stay cool under pressure.
  • improve relationships with others.
  • consistently make wise ministry decisions.
  • strategize and navigate change well.
  • learn to inspire others through their teaching.

To maximize our minds and brains, consider these three essentials.

  1. Learn how the brain works. Without trying to become an anatomy expert, take a few minutes to Google “brain” and read a few articles about how the brain works and its anatomy. You’ll also find several good YouTube videos as well. This four-minute video summarizes the techniques scientists are now using to learn more about the brain. This 55-minutes video by David Rock explains how understanding the brain can make a big difference in your leadership.
  2. Practice good brain care habits. Adequate sleep, healthy food, and regular exercise all help keep your brain sharp and functioning well. Scientists have also discovered that managing stress also protects the brain.
  3. Learn the art of self-awareness. Often our brain focuses on negative thoughts that take up precious brain space we need to think and lead well. When we “think about what we are thinking about” we have begun to win the battle against negative thinking. The Apostle Paul speaks to this issue in Phil. 4.8 when he writes,Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

So, as you grow in your leadership, consider how to use your brain to maximize your life and leadership.

In your education and experience, how have your insights into how the brain works helped your leadership?

I unpack this concept in detail in my latest book, The Brain-Savvy Leader: the Science of Significant Ministry.

Related posts:

  1. When Pastors Lead from their Lizard Brains
  2. 9 Signs Your Hormones May be Hijacking Your Leadership

Stop Multitasking: it Makes you Dumber (and 4 Ways to Improve)

Productivity for leaders demands wise time management. But will multi-tasking make us better time managers? This study says no. A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test. It was five points for women, and fifteen points for men. This effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis. While this fact might make an interesting dinner party topic, it’s really not that amusing that one of the most common “productivity tools” can make one as dumb as a stoner. (David Rock, Your Brain at Work, p. 36) If you get sucked into multitasking, consider these 4 ways to fight against the tendency.

close up hands multitasking man using  laptop  connecting wifi

Many leaders, including me, have too often convinced themselves that multi-tasking leads to better time management. Actually, it doesn’t. Researchers have shown that when we try to do two mental tasks at once, our cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight year old (Rock, p. 34).

Although we technically can do two tasks at once, it dramatically slows our mental processing. So, if you think you are saving time by multi-tasking, you really aren’t. Neuroscientists call this dual-task interference. Because the high level thinking part of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex) works in a serial fashion, one item at a time, when we multi-task we clog up its processing speed and actually reduce our effectiveness.

Linda Stone, a former VP at Microsoft captured the essence in the term continuous partial attention. She describes it this way. “To pay continuous partial attention is to keep a top-level item in focus, and constantly scan the periphery in case something more important emerges.” As a result, this “always on” mode puts our brains on constant alert, thus flooding them with too much stress hormone which slows processing.

So what can we do to moderate this tendency?

  1. Imbed repetitive tasks deep into our long term memory so we that we can actually do them without thinking. An example is driving. We don’t really think about driving because we’ve done it long enough to make it a habit. Such habits don’t require the executive functions of our brains. Rather, they are stored into the part of our brain that stores routine functions, the basal ganglia.
  2. Prioritize your tasks for the day. Every day take a few minutes to plan your day so that you do the most mentally taxing things first. This appointment with the executive center of our brains assures we do our best thinking for what demands it.
  3. Turn off notifications on your computer or mobile device. I thought in my iPad and iPhone all I had to do was to keep an app out of Notifications. I just realized that I have to go into settings and turn off notifications in each app. When I read, I hated getting the reminders at the top of the screen which interrupted my train of thought. I no longer get them.
  4. Determine when you will attend to those tasks that interrupted you. When I write or study, I turn off email. But every hour or so when I take a break, I will turn it on and quickly look at email and respond to those that I can in the moment. That way I can focus on that which requires my mental energy and check off those less demanding tasks at those scheduled times .

How do you handle the multi-tasking monster?

My latest book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry, provides practical insight from brain insight on many areas of leadership.

Related posts:

Your Brain’s Leadership X-factor

X-Factor: A variable in a situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome.

X-Factor: a tv show by Simon Cowell that didn’t do so well.

The term X-factor usually carries a positive mystique, a quality not readily identified except by its impact. We’ll say…

  • The singer has the X-factor that makes her great.
  • The business leader has the X-factor that makes her successful.
  • The pastor has the X-factor that makes him engaging.

But what about the brain’s X-factor? Is it a good quality?

Neuroscience has recently discovered important concepts that can enhance a leader’s leadership impact. Essentially our brain uses two processing systems through which we lead, interact with people, and control our emotional and behavioral responses.

Daniel Kahneman, a Noble prize winner, explains these systems in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow  as system 1 and system 2. Matthew Lieberman, a professor at UCLA describes the systems as reflexive and reflective. These two words capture the essence of each process.

  • reflexive, the X-system (the X-factor): that part of our brain that if overstimulated reacts and acts impulsively. It’s spontaneous and acts automatically.
  • reflective, the C-system: that part of our brain that acts with intention and thinks before acting. It regulates emotionally reactivity.

In my 35 years in ministry I’ve been taught and have taught that practicing various spiritual disciplines will yield a controlled, Spirit-filled life. But how many of us leaders, although we practice those disciplines, can react with anger to a staff person, become defensive at a lay leader’s comment, or simply act like a jerk in the heat of the moment?

We’re all guilty. I know I am. So what’s missing?

I believe that Christian leadership teaching has failed to incorporate what neuroscience has discovered about how our brain functions. I’m now on a quest to evangelize Christian leaders to learn how our God-given brain can serve us well.

The two systems I mentioned above, when in balance, work in tandem to help us lead well. However, when the X-system gets overloaded, the X-factor hinders effective leadership.

When we experience stress, the X-factor strengthens as hormones (primarily epinephrine and cortisol) surge into our brains and bodies and exacerbate these problems.

The  brain’s executive center we need for creativity and planning gets tired and becomes ineffective. It’s like a girl drawing a picture with an etch-a-sketch and her brother repeatedly grabbing it and shaking it, thus erasing her uncompleted picture. Similarly, when the X-factor kicks in, we can’t keep those critical creative thoughts in our minds long enough to make them stick.

  • Emotional accelerators diminish the impulse braking centers in our brain.
  • The reactive parts of our brain take over and we can become defensive.
  • Objectivity diminishes.
  • We don’t listen well to others because our brains can’t concentrate on other’s viewpoints without prematurely framing our own responses.
  • We default to easy, mindless activities such as excessively checking emails rather than focusing on important tasks.

God has given us our brains to be used for His glory. The more we understand them and integrate biblical principles with good neuroscience, the better leaders we will become.

Stay tuned for more blogs on this subject.

Related post:

9 Signals Your Hormones May be Hijacking your Leadership

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 Ministryintersects brain science with biblical principles on leadership.

HIJACKED red stamp text on white

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.

  1. I react and act impulsively when people disagree with me.
  2. I assume the worst and connect dots where there are none.
  3. I easily get defensive.
  4. I don’t seem to be as creative as I once was.
  5. I often find myself in a mental and emotional fog.
  6. I lose perspective easily.
  7. I don’t listen well to others, not because I don’t want to, but because my mind wanders and can’t focus.
  8. I find it difficult to concentrate.
  9. 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?

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5 Questions Pastors Neglect in Sermon Prep

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?”
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.

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