Are you a Thinking Leader? Take this Quiz to Find Out

One of the greatest leaders who ever lived was the Old Testament character Nehemiah. God gave him a burden to rebuild the walls surrounding Jerusalem in around 400 B.C. Even though he faced incredible odds, criticism, discouragement within the people, the haves exploiting the have nots, hunger among the people, and threats of violence from his enemies, he prevailed. A deciding factor, apart from his faith in God, was his ability to think clearly in the midst of crisis and difficulty. I believe a deciding factor in a leader’s ability to lead is clear thinking as well. Nehemiah’s responses point to 6 statements every leader should consider about about how his or her thinking affects leadership.

From a brain standpoint, two parts of our brain often vie for attention and energy: our thinking part (the pre-frontal cortex, located right behind our forehead) and our emotional center (the limbic system, located deep in then brain). When our emotional centers control, clear thinking degrades. When our thinking centers control, we can dampen the emotional center’s power and lead more effectively. Here’s what we learn about Nehemiah’s thinking.

  • Before he left for Jerusalem, four months passed (Neh. 2.1). During that time he was thinking about the problem (Jerusalem was in shambles) and waiting for the right time to approach the king.
  • When he finally arrived, he waited three days before he surveyed the situation (Neh. 2.11). He was probably thinking about how to fine tune his immediate plan before he inspected the walls.
  • When his critics criticized him, he refused to get drawn into arguments with them. Rather, he immediately prayed and then kept moving forward with the task at hand, rebuilding the wall (Neh. 4.4)
  • When he discovered that some wealthy Jews were exploiting the poor Jews, he didn’t emotionally react although he was very angry. Rather, Nehemiah 5.7 said he, “pondered.”

Nehemiah had learned to submit the thinking part of his brain to God which helped him lead most effectively.

Answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to these statement in the THINKING LEADERS QUIZ.

  1. I often shoot from the hip without thinking, especially when I feel threatened by another’s actions or comments.
  2. I easily let my emotions control my response (internal or verbal) when someone criticizes me.
  3. Sometimes I can’t concentrate because I’m so angry about something that happened.
  4. I tend to be a fire-aim rather than a ready-aim-fire leader.
  5. I seldom pause long enough to think about what I am thinking about.
  6. I seldom carve out time simply to think.

How did you do? If you answered yes to two or more statements, you’re probably not thinking as effectively as you should. As a result, you may not be leading at your best.

So, how can we become better thinkers? Consider this post on how to handle reactivity and this one on how our hormones can sometimes hijack our leadership.

What has helped you lead more effectively from your thinking?

Have you Overlooked this Brain-based Insight that Improves Public Speaking and Teaching?

My teaching has included 1,500 talks, sermons, speeches, and Bible studies during my 37 years in ministry. Sometimes when I’ve spoken I’ve felt like I was in the zone. At other times I didn’t. Only in the last few years have I discovered perhaps the single greatest key that has helped keep my mind sharp during a talk and improve its effectiveness. What was it? Exercise. Specifically, exercise within two to three hours of my talk. Here’s what I’ve learned about the brain and exercise that has improved my speaking.

Scientists increasingly see exercise as a powerful way to keep your brain healthy. Neuroscientist Dr. John Ratey wrote an entire book on the subject called SPARK, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He explains that exercise increases a key protein necessary for a healthy brain, BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor). Brain derived means that the brain makes it and neurotrophic implies that it helps make neurons (brain cells) strong. It’s considered the master molecule of learning (Ratey, p. 38) that he calls ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain.’

This brain fertilizer benefits the brain in many ways.

  • It protects neurons from premature death.
  • It improves their function.
  • It enhances communication between them.
  • It stimulates their growth (neurogenesis).
  • It provides a key link between emotions and thoughts (Ratey, 2013, p 40).

In one study Dr. Ratey writes about neuroscientist Arthur Kramer who divided fifty-nine sedentary senior adults into two groups (p. 226). One group simply did stretching exercises for six months while the other group exercised for six months three times a week on a treadmill. MRI scans showed that their frontal and temporal lobes actually increased in volume, a surprising finding. And, their brains looked two to three years younger than the brains of the stretch only group.

Another study showed that even one 35-minute workout on a treadmill at 60-70% of maximum heart rate can improve our brain’s processing speed and cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is a term that describes your brain’s ability to shift its thinking and to create new ideas.

Dr. Ratey also studied students in a school system in the Chicago suburbs. The school began a before hours exercise program called Zero Hour P.E. Students who participated in the program improved their mood and their reading comprehension compared to students who didn’t participate. He directly attributed this improvement to exercise.

Although for years I’ve regularly exercised during the week, I usually didn’t do so on Sundays since I had to arrive at church early. However, when I learned about this insight, I began to exercise 20-30 minutes early each Sunday morning. I now ride a stationary recumbent bike to get my heart rate to 60-70% of its maximum. When I began my Sunday morning exercise routine, I quickly realized these benefits.

  • I was less anxious about my message.
  • My memory improved and I more easily recalled the sermon’s points as I spoke.
  • I felt more physically energized than when I didn’t exercise.
  • I was more relaxed around others.
  • My overall mood was much better.

So, if you regularly preach or teach, consider exercising 20-30 minutes 2-3 hours prior to your teaching. I believe you’ll experience some of the same benefits I did.

What has helped improve your preaching/teaching?

Related posts.

 

Peek-a-Boo Porn in a Pastor’s Life

In my studies on the brain, I was intrigued to read this quote from one of today’s most well-known neuroscientists, V. S. Ramachandran, in his book The Tell-Tale Brain. (Kindle e-book location 4219) He writes, “A picture of a nude woman seen behind a shower curtain or wearing diaphanous, skimpy clothes-an image that men would say approvingly, ‘leaves something to the imagination’ can be much more alluring than a pinup of the same nude woman.” Similarly he writes, “many women will find images of hot and sexy but partially clad men to be more attractive than fully naked men.” (i.e., the Chippendales) He bases this belief on this neuroscience fact: our brains find pleasure in searching for solutions to problems or puzzles. The puzzle to be solved in the case of a partially clothed woman is to ‘fill in the visual blanks’ with our imagination. It adds an extra dimension of appeal. Many well-known artists have even used this principle when drawing images of the partially clothed. In this post I broach a topic about pornography that often we don’t classify as porn.

Much has been written about the dangers of porn. Most pastors today agree about such dangers. And we’re cautioned to never click to porn sites nor to look at pornographic magazines. I totally agree with those cautions.

Yet, I wonder if peek-a-boo porn might be just as damaging to a pastor’s thought life and ministry as that which most would agree meets the criteria of porn? And since peek-a-boo porn doesn’t meet the traditional porn definition, I wonder if we pastors might too easily convince ourselves there’s nothing wrong with it.

What might qualify as peek-a-boo porn?

  • A well-known sport’s magazine swimsuit edition.
  • Images to the right of some web pages of beautiful women that scream for us to click the image.
  • Some women’s magazines that show skimpily clad women (i.e., those magazines that visually yell at us at the grocery store check-out).
  • Commercials from a well-known women’s lingerie company.
  • Movies or TV shows that prominently shown scantily clothed women.

I wonder if Jesus had something like peek-a-boo porn in mind when he said these words.

But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt. Matt. 5.28 (The MESSAGE)

So if peek-a-book porn can be as destructive as traditional porn, how can we protect ourselves from it?

Here are a few suggestions.

  1. If your wife subscribes to women’s magazines that feature scantily clothed women, ask her to keep them out of plain site.
  2. Decide beforehand that you will physically look away when a lingerie commercial on TV pops up or when the camera zooms in on a cheerleader during a pro football game.
  3. Pre-screen a movie before you go see it. I highly recommend www.screenit.com. It’s a helpful site that gives a detailed analysis of the language, sex, and violence in almost every movie.
  4. Teach your church about Biblical virtues and the benefits of modesty. Explain how the brain works. I know this could be touchy, but if you are a male pastor, consider involving your wife in that teaching.
  5. Get the book Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain by Dr. William M. Struthers into the hands of your men.

Do you agree that peek-a-boo porn can be as destructive as the other kind? Or do you think I’m simply being too Puritan? How have you protected yourself from peek-a-boo porn?


“I just learned about the dangers of peek-a-boo porn.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


Related posts:

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.