It’s All in Your Head: How To Train Your Brain for Leadership and Better Decision-Making

You have the ability to rewire your brain, learn to make better decisions, and become a more effective leader in the process. But it's going to take some work.

True leaders are born, not made. You either come into this world with a commanding personality or you don’t. And if you don’t have the right genetic stuff, you’ll never really be capable of taking charge—so there’s no point to trying to learn how to lead. After all, people never really change, right?

If that’s what you believe, then think again—literally. The latest scientific research demonstrates that all of us have the ability to change our brains to an incredible degree—and that includes its physical make-up, how well it functions and even when it comes to how our emotions and personalities operate. You truly can rewire your mind as well as your mindset, if you’re willing to put in the effort—and you can become a more effective leader in the process.

The first step to being able to do that is to make sure you have a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset, as explained in Stanford Professor Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. When you have a fixed mindset, you essentially buy into the first paragraph of this post—you believe you can’t go beyond where you are and that you’ve learned and developed as much as you can. This can happen to people at all different junctures, including a 52-year-old CEO or a 22-year-old stockroom employee.

And in most cases, it’s simply not true. With a growth mindset in place, you open yourself to continually educating yourself and adding on to your capabilities and experiences; you always look for the next challenge and you work to fulfill your complete potential.

When it comes to training your brain for your leadership, a great resource to use is actually, believe it or not, one of the “For Dummies” books—in this case, The Leadership Brain for Dummies, written by Marilee Sprenger, an expert on brain-based teaching. Sprenger believes that when you understand how the brain reacts to specific situations, you can work with your mind instead of against it.

For example, according to Sprenger, your brain needs to do completely different things when it has time to make a measured decision versus when it has to make a call quickly without too much contemplation. When you have that luxury of time in your decision-making, it’s best to do the following in order to maximize your mental power:

1. Clearly define the situation or problem that needs to be solved.
When you have as complete an understanding of what needs to be accomplished as possible, you can best determine what needs to be done to reach that objective.

2. Gather all of the data relating to the problem.
The more you know, the better your decision can be. Talk to those who are closest to the situation, to get the sharpest “boots-on-the-ground” perspective.

3. List all possible solutions.
Look at all alternatives—even when some might seem completely ridiculous. They may spark creative thinking that takes you in a completely different, but very effective, direction, or they may actually contain the kernel of an amazing answer to the dilemma at hand.

4. List all the possible consequences.
Every action, of course, causes a reaction. When you’re going back and forth between a few options, consider which ones might lead to unexpected (and unwanted) results, especially if this decision is a big one. Any large-scale change will create a large-scale reaction, so make sure you can keep things under control.

In contrast, when you’re under the gun and have to make a fast decision, you don’t have time to feed your brain in the same way. That’s why you should:

1. Consider previous situations and the effects of prior decisions.
If this is a similar situation to one you’ve faced before, review what you did then and whether it will apply in this situation. However, also beware of using a one-size-fits-all approach if too many aspects of this particular problem differ from the previous one.

2. Look to the future and the impact this decision could have.
Analyze as quickly as you can what kind of implications your decision will have on the overall situation. It’s important that you review the consequences so that your choice doesn’t result in disaster.

3. Gather as much information as you can in a short period of time.
Even though the clock is ticking, try to get your hands on as much crucial data as possible. You may not be able to find out everything you want to know, but hopefully, you can find out everything you need to know.

4. Listen to your instincts as well as your logic.
The more experienced a leader you are, the more your instincts will lead you to the right decision. Keep in mind, however, that you will be feeling some stress about having to make this choice quickly. Be aware of how stress has affected your thinking in the past and try to make sure your mind is as clear as possible while considering your options. Panic, of course, is never a great decision-maker.

You can grow your leadership and decision-making abilities if you’re open to it. Just remember—it’s all in your head.

[Image: Flickr user Stephan van Es]

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5 Comments

  • Chris Reich

    This is a valuable reminder but missing a key step. Step 3 in both scenarios should be "Define What the Answer Will Look Like When We Find It." Then do what is listed her as the third steps.

    This astoundingly fundamental step clears indecision and reduces strife when teams are involved. Too often people state a problem and then start collecting possible solutions without clearly defining what the answer is going to look like.

    They end up adapting their "solution" to fit the problem and often with numerous unintended consequences.

    The ACA (healthcare) would have benefited from a clearer definition of what the final product would look and feel like. Instead, it was aimed at a goal. It appeared to reach that goal when passed but the reality has proven otherwise.

  • Ethan Hale

    Chris Reich, Thanks for that tip. I'm sure it will be incorporated into future versions. ;-)

  • Dale Holan

    Very good break down. I can look back at a few different times where I've done this without really knowing the steps but felt my way through it. It's nice to have a step by step list I can share.