How your Brain Impacts Your Leadership

Our three-pound, tofu textured body part shaped like a crinkly walnut, the brain, profoundly affects how well we do or don’t lead. Leaders who excel in today’s ministry or marketplace constantly seek to add new insights to their leadership toolbox and neuroscience insight should be in every leader’s toolbox. Interest and knowledge of how our brain works is exploding today, even among Christians. The headline of last month’s Leadership Journal read NeuroMinistry, How Brain Science Informs Discipleship. You can read my article on brain based communication in that issue here. Dr. Carolyn Leaf , a neuroscientist, will be a keynote speaker at this year’s Catalyst Conference in Atlanta. And, some of today’s best sellers explain how brain insight can improving our lives. Smart leaders stay on the cutting edge of brain based insight.

 Consider how these three brain networks can positively influence how you lead.

brain

Three significant brain networks impact leadership effectiveness:

  1. Our threat system influenced by two almond shaped clusters of neurons (brain cells) called the amygdalae. The brain chemicals called norepinephrine and cortisol are released when we’re under stress or feel fear or threat. This system puts us in a survival state to either fight, flee, or freeze (what a pastor might feel when he’s being criticized).
    • This system works to our advantage when we need to solve problems.
  2. Our achievement system influenced by the nucleus accumbens, our pleasure center. When we accomplish something (like putting the finishing touches on a sermon), the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine that makes us feel good.
    • This system helps motivate us to set and achieve goals and repeat good leadership behavior.
  3. Our friend and befriend system influenced by the pituitary gland. Oxytocin, another hormone/neurotransmitter often called the trust hormone, gets released when we feel safe around others.
    • This system helps us build an atmosphere that creates healthy and productive teams.

When we understand how these three systems influence leadership, we can become better leaders. Consider these ideas that can help us engage these systems in a positive way.

Our threat system:

  1. Avoid creating a working environment that puts staff or volunteers on edge or on the defensive. They will pay it safe and not perform at their peak to avoid getting slapped on the wrist.
  2. When something unpleasant or disappointing happens to you, control your reactions. When a leader reacts or gets angry, he influences others to do the same. It’s called emotional contagion. Others will mimic a leader’s emotional state, whether good and bad.
  3. Create a healthy working environment that challenges people to step outside their comfort zone to try new things. Healthy stress helps us perform better.

Our achievement system:

  1. Help your team set stretch goals.
  2. Notice and celebrate successes often.
  3. Guard against getting addicted to dopamine. See my blog here about dopamine addiction.

Our friend and befriend system:

  1. Provide formal and informal times for your staff to interact to strengthen relationships.
  2. Have your team read Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. His book offers great advice on building healthy teams.
  3. Guard against letting the threat system or the achievement system dominate this system. Fear and drivenness, if allowed, will usually trump relational health among your team. When that happens, performance will suffer.

Scripture tells us that God created each of us as His masterpiece. As we understand a significant part of that masterpiece, our brain, and apply brain insight to leadership, we will lead at our best.

Psa. 139.14  Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. (NIV)

What brain insights have helped you lead better?

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How to be a Likable Leader

Great leaders lead by influence. Their character, competencies, and relational skills or lack there of, can determine their leadership effectiveness. And as a pastor, perhaps my relational skills influence my leadership impact the most. Integral to relational skills is the vibe others feel from us. If someone feels like you like him or her, they’re more likely to respond positively to your leadership. If they don’t, and enough people feel the same way, your leadership will suffer. Consider these simple ways to become a likable leader.

like as friend

Several times the Bible characterizes an individual or group as having a refreshing spirit.

1Cor. 16.18 For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. 
2Cor. 7.13 By all this we are encouraged. In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you. 
2Tim. 1.16   May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. 
Philem. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.

You’ve probably met people like that. Even after a short conversation with such a person, you walk away feeling special, encouraged, and refreshed. My wife is one of those people who naturally does that. She has the gift of giving others soul refreshment.

So, how can we become more likable and thus refresh the spirits of others?

1. Be fully present with others.

It’s easy as a pastor, or as anyone who deals with people in public, to skim conversations in order to make connections with the maximum number of people. However, when we don’t look people in the eye and our eyes wander to the person just behind or beside them, it conveys a wrong message. Appearing distracted also conveys the wrong message. I suggest focusing on the quality of public interactions rather than on quantity which requires our being fully present.

2. Show interest in a person’s personal life.

Remembering names has always challenged me. I still must work hard to remember them. Yet when I use a person’s name in a conversation, it means a lot to him or her. And when I remember something personal about another and ask about it, that simple act of remembering deposits lots of refreshment into his or her soul.

3. Watch your body language.

Sometimes I can appear hurried when I’m talking to someone. I’m often in the ‘ready’ position to move on. That’s a soul refreshment drainer. But, when I face someone, slightly lean forward, and empathetically listen, that person feels honored and truly listened to. A smiling countenance will also make a great deposit. Body language communicates as much or more than our words.

4. Be your authentic self.

To create a likable persona does not mean we become an extrovert when we are actually an introvert. Neither does it mean the opposite. It means that we relate to people with our true, authentic selves. People will sense a fake and they’ll sense when you are being you as well. However, being your authentic self does not mean we don’t practice and continue to grow in our relational skill set. Although I’m basically an introvert, I’ve learned much from my wife as she is an extrovert with great people skills. I’m still an introvert by nature, but by God’s grace, He continues to build into me important people skills.

What qualities have you seen in likable leaders?

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How to Make a Pastor’s Job Joyful

As a pastor for 33 years, I’ve experienced the ups and downs ministry brings. Sometimes it seems like I’m on an emotional high after a baptism service, a breakthrough elders’ meeting, or a powerful worship service. Other times I’ve had to battle thoughts of giving up when I receive several critical emails in one week, a staff member is consistently underperforming and I need to confront him, or when it seems like the ministry has hit a lid. However, I believe one thing makes a pastor’s job most joyful. See if you agree.

Beautiful smiling cute baby

In the most intimate of the Apostle Paul’s New Testament letters, Philippians, he gives us a clue to what can make a pastor’s job most joyful. He writes this phrase in Philippians 2.16 … in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.

William Barclay explains the meaning of this verse when he says that Paul uses a term for an athlete who trains. No athlete wants his training to fail. He wants to win the race for which he’s training. So, Paul prays that he may not be like an athlete whose training and effort have gone for nothing. For him the greatest prize in life was to know that through him others had come to know and to love and to serve Jesus Christ. [Barclay, W. (Ed.). (1975). The letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (electronic ed., pp. 45–46). Philadelphia: The Westminster John Knox Press.]

In other words, when Paul came to the end of his life, he would not want his sacrifice and service to have been a waste. He is telling the church at Philippi that they bring him the greatest joy when they love God and love others well.

When Christians truly love God and others, it minimizes crabbiness, critical spirits, and nitpicky preferences. It prompts believers to willing give of their time, talent, and treasures. More people extend grace when things don’t go their way in the church. And, by the way, the opposite should hold true as well. When we pastors love God and love others well, we extend those same graces to people in our churches.

So how can we encourage our church to make our job joyful and in doing so fulfill Hebrews 13. 17 which says, Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery? (Message) Consider these suggestions.

1. Model the behavior and attitude you hope those in your church will live out. We can’t live by another standard. Neither can we expect others to do what we are unwilling to do ourselves.

2. At appropriate times (not when you’re mad at somebody), include this concept in your teaching and preaching. I recently taught Philippians 2 which made it natural to broach the topic.

3. Tell stories of church people who live out godly character and conduct. People emulate what you publicly honor.

4. Thank people when they live out the values that bring you joy. Express it privately and publicly.

What has brought you the greatest joy in ministry? How can you encourage church people to do it more, without becoming self-serving?

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Mark Driscoll, and why Every Pastor Should be Taken Down

Last week the Acts 29 Network dismissed from its membership Seattle mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll and his church Mars Hill Church and asked for his resignation as pastor. This came as several controversies came to light about Mark and his church. Mars Hill’s accountability board countered with a statement of frustration that apparently that board had failed to personally contact Mark and Mars Hill’s board before making their dismissal public. This news has become fodder for bloggers, resulted in some bookstores refusing to sell Mark’s books, fomented demonstrations in front of the church, and even hit the New York Times. I don’t know Mark personally, but this brouhaha has reminded me that every pastor should be taken down. Here’s what I mean and why it should matter.

Arrow down on red

I’m fascinated with survival stories, maybe because I’m a pastor and sometimes leading a church requires great survival skills. This survival story illustrates why every pastor must be taken down, or put into different words, why we must take ourselves down.

I recently read the 1988 book Touching the Void about two mountain climbers successful yet disastrous climb of the 20,813 foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. One climber broke his leg on the way down. In the other climber’s attempt to lower his injured friend, he was forced to cut the rope that was suspending the injured climber over a cliff in mid-air. If he hadn’t, they both would have fallen to their deaths.

When the line snapped, the injured climber fell 150 feet into a crevasse, almost always guaranteeing certain death. Miraculously, he landed on a small ledge inside the crevasse and survived. Although he had rope with him, his broken leg prevented him from climbing out of the crevasse. And the next day his fellow climber assumed he had died.

In excruciating pain he faced three choices. He could commit quick suicide and roll off the ledge. He could stay on the ledge and slowly die from hypothermia. Or he could take the risky choice and lower himself further into the crevasse hoping to touch bottom, not knowing how deep the crevasse was. He could possibly run out of rope on the way down and die anyway, freezing to death as he dangled in mid-air.

He made the third, risky choice, and rapalled himself down into the darkness. Miraculously he was able to lower himself onto on a snow bridge. He then pulled himself out of the crevasse as he found a more gentle grade and literally crawled back to camp, dragging his broken leg behind him.

The only way he was able to survive was by going down. He went down so he could go up.

Jesus Himself embodied that principle: the only way up is to go down. The Apostle Paul wrote these profound words in Philippians that captures what Jesus did and what we should also do.

5   Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,  7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!  9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,  10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2.5-9, NIV)

Jesus went down to become a humble servant, ultimately going to the cross for our sins. And God promised that because Jesus did this, He would lift him up. God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. (verse 9)

So, as I read the charges and counter-charges about Pastor Mark, my heart grieves that church leaders are being hurt, church people are being hurt, the Church itself is taking a hit, and spiritual seekers are saying, “See, I told you so. I don’t want anything to do with that kind of stuff (Christianity).”

Even in my sorrow, I’m learning this lesson. I must never use my ministry to glorify myself or seek personal gain. I must seek God inspired humility. I must live a life that offers as much grace to others as I have received. I must remain accountable.

And most of all, I must remember the principle illustrated in the life of Jesus: if you want to go up, you must first go down.

That’s why I believe every pastor needs to be taken down…down the road of humble service, grace-filled relating, and deep gratitude that we get to do what we do.

4 Ways to Become a More Grateful Leader

Ministry challenges can often rob our joy. Mounting problems, unhappy people, and never ending ministry demands often leave us with little emotional reserve to appreciate the good. What do we do when that happens? While not sticking our head in the sand about our problems, how can we bring joy back into our leadership? I believe becoming more grateful can help…a lot. Consider these 4 ways to become a more grateful leader.

Eraser changing the word Ungrateful for grateful

1. Realize the practical benefits gratefulness brings.

Recent research has shown multiple benefits of gratefulness (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Benefits include these.

  • You will feel better about life in general.
  • You will be more optimistic and experience more positive emotions.
  • You will be less likely to be depressed.
  • You will physical feel better.
  • You will be more likely to help others.

2. Practice the discipline of metacognition.

Metacognition is the term for thinking about what you are thinking about. Often we are unaware that incessant chatter and mental rumination about problems replays in our minds, like a scene in a dvd that’s stuck a loop. When that happens, negative thinking can snowball so that we lose perspective and only see the negative. However, when we consciously make ourselves aware of that video playing on our mind (periodically check in on our thinking), we can stop the problem tape and ‘reinsert’ a gratitude tape.

The Apostle Paul wisely points this out in Philippians 4.8.

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.

3. Re-frame problems as learning opportunities or as ways that God can work.

As the old adage goes, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. We can’t avoid problems in ministry. But we do have the choice on how we choose to perceive them. When we gratefully re-frame a problem as an opportunity for God to work, it can motivate us to focus on solutions. And creating solutions gives the brain something it loves, certainty. Creating action plans and goals to solve a problem gives us a burst of the feel good neurotransmitter, dopamine, which helps motivate us toward further action.

4. Keep a journal of blessings.

In one study (Korb, 2012) researchers asked participants to keep a daily journal of what they were grateful for. They asked another group to write about what annoyed them. The group who recorded what they were grateful for showed greater determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy compared to the other group. So, journaling what you are grateful for is a proven way to increase gratefulness.

What has helped you become a more grateful leader?

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Sources:

  • Emmons, R.A. & McCullough, M.E. (2003) Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (2), pp.377–389.
  • Korb,A. (2012) The Grateful Brain