How a Leader’s Brain Works, Part 1

How a Leader's Brain Works  Dr. Charles StoneIn my last post I stated that it’s important that we pastor-leaders understand how our brain works so we can lead at our best. I explained how our emotions sometimes hijack clear thinking which in turn diminishes good leadership. In this two-part post (part 2 follows tomorrow) I describe how two fundamental brain processes affect us and our 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.

Has Your Emotional Brain Hijacked your Leadership?

Has Your Emotional Brain Hijacked Your Leadership? Dr. Charles StoneGreat ministry leaders keep their emotions in check. Unfortunately, when we don’t keep them in check, they can hijack clear thinking and good leadership. Yet, when we understand how our brain and emotions work, such insight can help us manage them in God honoring ways. Below I give a quick summary about the part of our brain that affects emotions.

Many parts of the brain influence our emotions, but the part I call the Panic Alarm (the limbic system, especially the amygdala) contributes the most. The word limbic means ‘edge’ and it got its name because it lies on the edge between the outer part of the brain and other important internal structures. Its primary structures include the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus. The Panic Alarm strongly influences our emotional system, sometimes called the X-system. In my next blog, I’ll explain our two basic brain systems that include the X-system.

The amygdalae (I use the singular form amygdala) are two almond shaped structures that play a critical role in our emotions for several reasons. It’s constantly on the lookout for problems and receives sensory input from many other parts of the brain. It stores and catalogs emotional memories. And both the hippocampus and the amygdala are involved in memory, the former primarily for facts and the latter for emotions.

For example, your hippocampus helps you remember the names of your elder or deacon board members. The amygdala tells you which ones you like. Because the amygdala is so highly connected to other parts of the brain, when it gets overly activated (the Panic Alarm goes off) it can diminish clear thinking and diminish thoughtful leadership.

An external real or perceived threat (an angry board member), a memory (when we were called to appear before an emergency board meeting), imagining ourselves in a threatening situation, or ever anticipating a threat can incite our Panic Alarm. The flight-flight-freeze-appease response originates from here. It’s also vital in helping us form healthy emotional attachments, especially at an early age.

Another component of the limbic system, the hypothalamus, acts as a controller to the master hormone gland, the pituitary gland. When we’re under stress it releases the stress hormone cortisol into our blood stream and neurotransmitters into our brain. Our body reacts very quickly to the neurotransmitter release but slower to the hormonal release. And chronic stress can damage our body and even kill brain cells (neurons) in the hippocampus. However, since the hippocampus is one of the few structures that can grow neurons, called neurogenesis, when stress decreases and cortisol levels out, the brain can regrow neurons here.

Another significant part of the brain, the insula, also influences emotions, and informs the amygdala. It maps our body’s internal feelings by receiving continuous input from over 100 million neurons (Armour, 2004) that line our hollow organs like our heart and intestines. It takes this information and represents how we feel in relation to our outside environment. Intuition is affected by this so called ‘second brain’ (Hadhazy, 2010). It can give us a ‘gut’ feel, butterflies in our stomach, or a ‘heartfelt sense’ we sometimes feel about something or someone. It’s also finely tuned to feel disgust and to sense unfairness.

I believe God used my insula to help me make a difficult decision years ago. I had been leading a poorly performing staff member that I had hoped I could reform to fit our culture. I kept telling myself that I could change him. But nothing seemed to work. I thought I needed to release him but I just couldn’t seem to pull the trigger. However, one morning I woke up in the middle of the night and knew in my gut I had to release him. I believe my insula helped me make that decision.

Related to the insula, it’s interesting to note that although the Bible never uses the word brain, it often uses the word for bowels to refer to the deep interior of our heart, soul, and mind. Although the Biblical writers didn’t explicitly understand the inner workings of the brain, God gave them keen insight into how our bodies and brains actually worked in real life.

Has your emotional brain every hijacked your leadership? What has helped you keep your emotions in check?


“I just learned how my emotional brain can sometimes hijack my leadership.” (tweet this quote by clicking here).


Related posts:


References:

Armour, J.A. (2004) Cardiac neuronal hierarchy in health and disease. American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 287 (2), pp.R262-R271.

Hadhazy, A. (2010) Think Twice: How the Gut’s ‘Second Brain’ Influences Mood and Well-Being: Scientific American [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 28 February 2013].

Have You Misplaced Your Identity? 10 Probing Questions to Find Out

“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 Ministryit 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 an earlier post this week, I shared what I’ve learned during the past year while I’ve not served in an official role as a pastor. One key insight I learned is that it’s easy for a pastor to wrap his identity around being a pastor, rather than around Christ.

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 subjecthere. 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)


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My Journey from Preacher to Parishoner-8 Insights I Learned as “no longer a pastor”

My journey from Preacher to Parishoner-8 Insights I learned Dr. Charles StoneI’ve served in the local church as a pastor for over 32 years, yet for the past year I’ve not served in an official pastoral role. After 7-1/2 wonderful years at a church in Aurora, IL, I left to accomplish several goals that I couldn’t have if I were on staff at a church.

So, I’ve been quite busy doing some interesting things.

Because my passion lies in the local church, however, I believe I will soon pastor another church as I’m now in conversations with those showing interest.

Yet, this past year has proved invaluable in teaching me insight about what it’s like not being a pastor. Here’s what I’ve learned. As you read, ask yourself if any of these are true of you.

  1. I allowed my identity to get too wrapped up in being a pastor.As a pastor I told myself to guard against this. But not being one has allowed me to truly see it from the “other side of the aisle” and see how easy it is to replace my identity in Christ with my identity as a pastor.
  2. Corollary to the above: I found that I liked being noticed by others as a pastor. In my new church where we’ve joined, although I’ve preached a couple of times, when church people meet me they just see a regular person, not a pastor. However, when I was a pastor, people instantly recognized me. It’s tempting to enjoy recognition too much. I hope when I begin serving again as a senior pastor, I won’t forget this lesson
  3. It’s easy for the average church member to skip church on a Sunday. On Sundays where I’m not speaking or have no responsibilities, the temptation to just sleep in, go out for breakfast, and take off the day looms large. I now understand how the average person who has worked hard six days of the week would simply choose to stay home and rest.
  4. Corollary to the above: Churches must plan and deliver a compelling, Spirit-filled worship service and sermon each Sunday. I’ve known this intellectually, but now since I’m on the receiving end I see even more its importance. If someone takes three hours out of their day of rest to attend church, they better feel that it was worth their time.
  5. Familiarity blindness has afflicted many church leaders. Familiarity blindness is when we become impervious to stuff we do in the church that can hinder someone’s walk with Christ or hinder a visitor’s receptivity to the Gospel. For example, you may know how to get around the church facility, but with poor signage a new person may get lost. That small issue to us may cause that person to not return.
  6. It’s tough finding community in a new church. In every church we’ve led, we’ve encouraged the regular folks to reach out to new people. It’s often like pulling eye teeth, though. In every church we’ve attended, the familiar folks almost always talk to those they already know. However, when someone who doesn’t know me makes an extra effort to make me feel comfortable and help me meet others, it leaves a great impression. Also, if you don’t have an easy system where new people can join a group or class, you’re turning people away without even knowing it.
  7. I realize how stressful Sundays had been. Even when I’m preaching at another church, I don’t feel the stress that I felt when I was a lead pastor. An undeniable weight of responsibility falls on a senior pastor. I hope that when I become a senior pastor again, I will do a lot more of this: “cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you.”
  8. It’s easy to subtly expect others to treat you different as a “man of the cloth.” Sometime a little silent voice speaks up in my mind when someone treats me rudely. That voice says, “Don’t you know that I’m a pastor and that you should treat me like one.” Although we must respect everyone, I shouldn’t expect to be treated differently just because I’m a pastor.

Whether you are or aren’t a pastor, what would you add to this list? In other words, what are some of those subtle behaviors pastors and churches get used to that could hinder Kingdom progress?


“I just learned an interesting church perspective from a pastor who is no longer a pastor.” (retweet this quote by clicking here)


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7 Ways to Cure Familiarity Blindness in Your Church

7 Ways to Cure Familiarity Blindness in your Church Dr. Charles StoneFamiliarity 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, i.e., a detour, you immediately pay attention.

The same process happens in ministry. 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.

So, 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? 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 things 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)


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