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.

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