The Moody Leader: 4 Reasons from Neuroscience to NOT to be One

Churches, non-profits, and businesses require emotionally healthy and aware leaders. While competency, good management skills, and vision casting ability certainly matter, research now shows that emotional intelligence (EQ) profoundly impacts leadership effectiveness as well. One aspect of EQ, knowing our emotions, reinforces the idea that leaders must never be moody ones. Neuroscience gives us four reasons why.

Before I list the reasons why leaders should never be moody, here’s how I describe a moody leader.

  • Employes and followers aren’t sure what kind of mood he will bring to work.
  • When he feels anxious, which is often, he’s short with others and demanding.
  • He thrives on drama in the workplace.
  • He lacks self-awareness of how he comes across when he’s emotional.

So, here’s how neuroscience informs us about the downsides of moody leaders.

  1. Emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is the term that describes how others catch our emotions. If a leader is often moody, sour, or negative, that attitude will permeate that organization or church. I was once treated very rudely when I ordered a hamburger and fries at a hamburger joint. A few minutes later the cook yelled at the person who waited on me. At that point I realized who actually waited on me, the owner of the restaurant. His employees had ‘caught’ his bad attitude. I never returned.
  2. Uncertainty. Our brains don’t like uncertainty. When we sense it (“I wonder what kind of mood the boss will be in today?”), it sets up an avoidance response in us. Or flight-fight-freeze-appease center (the limbic system) ratchets up which results in fear, less team cooperation, and less creativity in the workplace. Moody leaders infuse uncertainty into the workplace. (My blog here describes our brain’s 3 leadership systems we should be aware of.)
  3. Mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a specialized group of brain cells that cause us to mimic goal directed behavior. For example, when we see someone yawn or smile, we tend to subconsciously yawn or smile. But such behavior is not limited to yawns and smiles. If a leader constantly frowns or furrows his brow in a disapproving way, it sets a negative tone in the workplace or the church. Yet, genuine smiles can do the opposite by encouraging a positive, productive work setting.
  4. Theory of mind. Theory of mind is a concept that says our minds can somewhat intuit what others are thinking and feeling. Although not mind reading, the process called mentalizing, helps us understand another’s mental states. Mentalizing helps us imagine and interpret their needs, desires, feelings, and goals. When a leader brings moodiness into relationships, he inadvertently leads others to intuit negative intents, purposes, or desires which that leader probably does not want his followers or employees to think or believe.

So you can see that moody leadership does not contribute to healthy teams, trust, creativity, leadership effectiveness, or cooperation.

If you think you may be a moody leader, ask someone who truly cares about you to gently remind you when you start acting moody.

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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 a Leadership Journal edition 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, was a keynote speaker at a 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.

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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5 Leadership Insights I Wish I Knew 25 Years Ago

I’ve been in vocational ministry over 38 and my leadership roles have included my role as singles pastor, discipleship pastor, associate pastor, teaching pastor, church planter, and lead pastor. Although I’ve earned two seminary degrees and I appreciate what I learned in seminary, I’ve learned many key lessons that seminary never taught me. I wish I had known these 5 key lessons when I began  ministry.

  1. Silence from your team does not mean they agree with you.
    • Early on when I’d lead either staff, board, or volunteer meetings I tried very hard to sell ideas I was excited about. I would often present the idea in such a way that hindered honest input from the team. I’d enthusiastically share the idea, ask if there were any questions, and when none came I assumed everybody agreed. I learned the hard way that silence often did not mean they agreed with my idea. Rather, the team was simply reluctant to share their concerns. Only later would I find out that the idea was not a good one and lacked support. My overbearing “sell job” actually stifled feedback I needed to hear.
  2. Collaboration will get you further down the road.
    • This insight stands as a close cousin to number 1. I once thought that to prove my leadership mettle, I had to originate all major ministry initiatives and ideas. If someone suggested an idea, although I may have appeared to listen to them, mentally I would often dismiss their idea if it didn’t jibe with mine. Why? Because it didn’t originate with me. I’ve since learned that if I use a collaborative process to determine vision and major objectives, I got more buy-in and in the long run make greater progress.
  3. You probably can’t over-communicate.
    • Most people in our churches don’t spend the hours we do in thinking about church ministry. Because we spend so much more time thinking on these issues, I often fell into a subconscious trap assuming that if I felt I was over communicating about something, others must feel the same way. I’ve learned since that it’s almost impossible to over-communicate issues like vision, values, and core strategies. Although we created banners, book marks, and cool graphics to communicate our church’s current theme (Unified yet Unique), when I asked our church this past Sunday to quote that simple phrase, few could repeat it. That experience reminded me that although I thought I had communicated it effectively, I still needed to communicate it even more.
  4. Others mirror a leader’s emotional temperature.
    • The term for mirroring another’s response is called emotional contagion. Teams actually ‘catch’ the emotional state of their leaders. Early in ministry I felt that I had the leadership right to get angry, pout, or emotionally cut myself off from others if things didn’t go well. It was being authentic, or so I thought. While not discounting the importance of authenticity, I’ve learned that I must bring a positive and hopeful tone into the office each day. When I experience something painful and it’s appropriate to share it, say in a staff meeting, that sharing builds trust. But if I regularly bring negative emotions into the office, I set up a tone that others often catch and mirror, even though that emotion may have nothing to do with their circumstances. Such negative emotions can hinder a team’s effectiveness.
  5. Less is more.
    • I’ll never forget my first elder’s meeting almost 30 years ago. I had started a church in the Atlanta, GA area and we had just elected our first slate of elders. I planned the agenda for the first meeting. It was three pages long. I am not kidding. I actually still have memory traces of me racing through the agenda at a breakneck speed so we could check off all the items. The meeting was a flop. I’ve learned that less is more applies not only to meeting agendas but also to sermon prep as well. People in general absorb a few key ideas (or idea) much better than when we use the proverbial firehose approach.

What key lessons in your ministry do you wish you had known when you started?

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Smart Leaders stay close to their Critics

MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS. Little did those accepted for this job out of the thousands who applied realize how true those words would eventually become.

Ernest Shackleton, a well-known explorer in the early 1900s, placed this ad in 1915 to recruit a team for his third attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica. In August of that year, he set sail with his recruits in the ship Endurance, named after his family motto: “By endurance, we conquer.” Three months later they arrived at South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic to begin their thousand-mile trek to the Antarctic Peninsula, a trip expected to take 120 days.

More than a year earlier, Vilhjalmur Stefansson had led a different expedition to explore the Arctic in their ship, the Karluk. Both ships endured similar fates in their respective voyages. Dennis Perkins recorded these words about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition:

The masts toppled and the sides were stove in, as shards of ice ripped the strong timbers to shreds. Frank Wild made a last tour of the dying vessel and found two crewmembers in the forecastle, fast asleep after their exhausting labor at the bilge pumps. He said, “She’s going, boys, I think it’s time to get off.” ( N. T. Perkins, Leading on the Edge, New York: AMACOM, 2000, p. 6.)

Both expeditions, a year apart, had been gripped in an icy vice that crushed their respective ships, forcing each party onto the ice and into horrific conditions. Yet similar circumstances, only poles apart, yielded dramatically different results. In the months following the Karluk’s destruction, the crew disintegrated into a conflict-­laden, self-centered group, which resulted in the death of eleven of its crew.

In contrast, Shackleton’s crew, although they too confronted harsh circumstances and conflict, emerged on dry land 634 days after the expedition began. Not a single man perished. Although they faced the same hellish conditions as Stefansson’s men did, they experienced a different fate. What made the difference? Shackleton’s calm leadership presence before his critics and naysayers. 

The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured this important leadership characteristic Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival.

“Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; never lost his optimism, and prepared for winter.” (J. Marcuson, Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry, New York: Seabury Books, 2009, Kindle ebook, loc. 1117, emphasis mine)

Shackleton exemplified a key quality needed for every leader: engage your critics. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

When our environment breeds anxiety and our critics try to stir up trouble, we can defuse this anxiety by calmly staying connected to them. Neuroscience actually verifies the biblical principle from Proverbs 15.1 that says, “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” It’s called emotional contagion. Others will catch our calmness which actually helps quiet the emotional centers in their brains responsible for anxiety and fear.

Men in Shackleton’s expedition noticed his calm, steady demeanor. When they were stuck on the ship, even one of his most pessimistic crewmen wrote these words in his journal.

“He is always able to keep his troubles under and show a bold front. His unfailing cheeriness means a lot to a band of disappointed explorers like ourselves. . . . He is one of the greatest optimists living.” (ibid, Kindle loc. 1182).

Shackleton keenly understood the importance of setting an example for his men on how to handle conflict and stress in a crisis. As you might imagine, living under such harsh conditions could easily cause arguments and disagreements. Yet those disagreements rarely disrupted unity because he developed an atmosphere that also encouraged dissent to be brought into the open.

Shackleton constantly faced four choices when confronted with dissident people, the same choices spiritual leaders face today:

  1. Pander and give in to critics to restore tranquility. Often because the critics are big givers or wield relational influence in our churches, we pander to them.
  2. Isolate or ignore critics, troublemakers and those with whom our personalities rub, thinking that if we don’t hear those voices, they will go away.
  3. Get defensive and power up to quiet the critic.
  4. Show courage and stay calmly connected to the critic.

Shackleton wisely chose the fourth option. Smart leaders do the same.

How have you managed the critics in your life?

(Taken and adapted from People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone. Copyright (c) 2014 by Charles Stone. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com.)

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4 Things I Wish I Could Do Over as a Parent

We have three grown kids, one grandson, and one grandchild on the way. We love all of our  kids and they love us. As I reflect over my parenting years, I’d give myself a solid ‘B+’ in the parenting department. But, I would also would have parented differently in several ways. In a recent family service at our church, I shared these 4 things I wish I could do over as a parent. As you read them, ask which might apply to your parenting style.

If I could re-do my parenting, this is what I would have done differently.

  1. I would have not gotten so uptight when surprises came.
    • I’m sometimes guilty of catastrophizing. That is, assuming a worse case scenario, an ‘it’s the end of the world’ mentality. Sometimes I did this when one of my kids blew it. And when I responded that way, I would turn the entire emotional tone of our family negative. It’s a phenomenon called emotional contagion. Leaders, dads, and influential people set the emotional tone of those around them, in either good or bad ways. 
  2. I would have dealt with my own insecurities.
    • I was insecure as a young dad. To bolster my self confidence I would sometimes try to control my kids behavior in an overbearing way. It was a blind spot. Back then I wish I had invited someone wiser into my life on a regular basis to help me deal with my own junk… a counselor, a coach, or a mentor.
  3. I would have been less driven to fix things and ‘doing’ and more focused on process and ‘being.’
    • I’m a problem solver and that’s a good quality. But with relationships with our kids, sometimes it’s not the best solution. Sometimes when they face difficulties they simply need our presence, for us to simply be with them. This goes against our cultural push to be human doings rather than human beings. So, when something in my kids’ lives needed fixing, I wish I had simply offered my presence rather than my solutions.
  4. I wish I had asked a lot more questions to make my kids think more for themselves.
    • This idea relates to number 3 above. Sometimes we should not fix things even though we clearly see what needs to be fixed. Sometimes the best thing a leader can do, whether in a church or a family or a business, is to ask questions so that the other person comes up with his or her solution. When that happens, the other person owns it better. As an example in parenting, let’s say your child clearly disobeyed you on an issue. Perhaps part of discovering what the consequence should be would be to ask your child, “So, if you were in my shoes what would you do? What consequence would you give if you were the parent?” Such dialogue could have helped my kids think more for themselves at an earlier age.

What kinds of things would you do over as a parent?

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