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Three Leadership Beliefs I Changed my Mind About (and how neuroscience helped me get there)

When did you last change your mind about something? Maybe it was this morning when you decided to wear a different pair of pants. Perhaps it was last night when you were planning a family vacation and thought of visiting a different place. It could even be last week when your friend convinced you that pineapple on pizza is actually yummy. We go through decisions like these so often we may not even realize just how much we change our minds about simple and not-so-simple things.

I’ve been reflecting about significant perspectives that I found myself re-thinking in the past few years, and one big theme is leadership. As a leader myself managing several businesses, who also works as a coach with a lot of leaders in organizations and teams, I’ve been trying to observe and understand what drives our behaviors and how we lead others. What practices help or hinder us from being our best as leaders? How can we continuously bring out the best in ourselves and our people?

In this learning journey, I have come to change my mind about how I should show up as a leader. A big contributor to these shifts is my continuous learning about our brain and how it works. Here are three things that have adjusted for me and the references that helped.

1. Leaders don’t show emotions.

I used to think that showing emotions as a leader, especially crying, is a sign of weakness. Now I know that my emotions are simply an indication of something that is valuable to me, and if I share that with my team, they will learn more about me and what I value, and even support my pursuit to be consistent with those values. Allowing my team members to share their feelings with me and with each other also helps us to create better connections, and work more cohesively. Thanks to the work of Dr. Lisa Feldman-Barrett who wrote the book “How Emotions are Made” and Dr. Susan David who wrote “Emotional Agility,” I have been learning to create better awareness of my emotions and what they mean to me, as well as cognizance of others’ emotions and what they mean to them.

2. Leaders don’t bring personal concerns to work.

I used to subscribe to the notion that one should “check their personal lives at the door” when they come to work every day. You are on “company time” so any time your mind wanders to personal thoughts such as a sick child or an argument with a family member, you are doing the company a disservice and should just learn to lock those thoughts away. Now I understand that I come to my workplace as a completely whole person who has various facets of my life, and if my brain is not at its best because those other facets are not going well, I will not be at my best for my company anyway. I love the work of Dr. Sarah McKay, neuroscientist and author of “In Her Head,” who shares a simple model of how one’s mindset, one’s environment and one’s physiological state all play a critical role in supporting a healthy brain. Integrating brain-healthy habits into my day no longer makes me feel guilty for spending time on myself. 

3. Leaders are direct and completely fact-based.

I used to believe that the best way of communicating is to be completely direct, objective and fact-based. Now I know that I also have to be held accountable for the impact of my message on others. How they receive my message is equally important in determining the effectiveness of our communication. Thanks to the lessons I learn from my favorite podcast Huberman Lab, hosted by Stanford professor Dr. Andrew Huberman, I understand how the different chemicals in our brains are triggered and how they influence our behaviors. 

By understanding the mechanisms of how our own mind works, I’ve learned to change my mind about what good leadership looks and feels like. I’m still learning and may continue to adjust some of my beliefs, but that is the value of continuous learning or neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to form new connections). My encouragement to other leaders is to keep learning too. If the best athletes continue to practice their sport even after they’ve won several medals and trophies, then leaders should continue practicing their craft as well.

I’m also fascinated by neuroscience because it helps me to reinforce my belief that, while we might look and sound different from others and while our principles might be shaped by our environment and culture, underneath we are all the same. If we get better at understanding why and how we think, feel and behave, we might be more capable of looking at others past the prejudices and judgements and simply accept that we are all human beings doing the best we can to thrive.