Leadership and the Brain

When I first started my career I worked for a management consultancy so didn’t experience the over bearing bosses close up, but a close friend of mine went to work for BHS. Fresh in and excited it was then that she came across Philip Green who she was utterly terrified of. He would swoop into meetings and demand to know the detail from this young and very junior graduate.

Philip Green is a leader who, whatever you may think of him, has been very successful. One that Stuart Rose ex-chairman and CEO of M&S describes as “a classic bricks-and-mortar retailer”. He’s also someone who has proffered a command and control style of management. His leadership is what is known as ‘great man’ or trait leadership – based on the idea that successful leaders have innate, fixed leadership capabilities which fulfil certain characteristics including the ability to use power and influence to lead.  Everyone who’s been close up and personal with Green talks about his gift for mental arithmetic, instant assessment of value, fast decision making and simplification of complex business dilemmas.  Green himself indirectly alludes to his style being of a less moveable stance saying “If I had wheels, I’d be a car. If: it’s a big word, isn’t it? I can’t deal in if.”

But this fixed style of leadership isn’t relevant or helpful today as we exist on a constant wobble board of change. We operate in a world of economic volatility, rapid advances in technology, intensifying competition and an unpredictable political landscape which all call for clarity of thought and speed of action. A world which deals very much in ‘Ifs’. For example, the founder and CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos says that “This is Day 1 for the Internet. We still have so much to learn.” In interviews Bezos still talks about the Internet as an ­uncharted world, imperfectly understood and yielding new surprises all the time, demonstrating the need to continually evolve and adapt. Amazon develops something new every 11.6 seconds. This simply could not be done through a command and control structure – a boss having to say yes to everything.

As leaders there is a need to constantly adapt and change, but also to understand how to make employees feel secure to get the most from them and bring them along on the journey. And understanding the brain both from the perspective of your own brain and the brains of your employees is a very helpful foundation for the style of leadership needed today.

Let me give you an example of how these two different leadership styles impact employees brains by looking at it through the lens of neuroscience. In 2012, Boyatzis a renowned Professor of Organizational Behavior, Psychology, and Cognitive Science examined the neural substrates activated in experiences with leaders who were good at relating to followers (e.g. Jeff Bezos) and those who were not (e.g. Phillip Green). Subjects responded to the leaders who were good at relating to others by showing activation in 14 regions of the brain, specifically areas associated with attention and relationships.

Subjects responded to leaders who were not good at relating to others with activation in only 6 areas of the brain and deactivation in 11 areas, specifically narrowing attention and initiating negative emotions. The primitive areas of the brain experienced this leader as a threat and the brain responded accordingly. Ready to take flight but not ready to adapt and respond.

This has significant and damaging consequences. Negative emotions lead to cognitive, emotional and perceptual impairment, which in turn limits an employee’s ability to make accurate rational decisions and causes them to have an inaccurate and overly negative view of their environment and those around them. While this may have been sustainable within a command and control structure, the vulnerabilities this style creates in employees become completely disabling in a constantly changing world.

For more on this, your brain as a leader and the brain of your employers log on free to the webinar I’m doing this week with The School for CEOs.

Image: Pexels.com

The Myth of Sanity

Sanity is a myth, none of us are sane, yet insanity feels scary, foreign and a million miles from the life that most of us lead. Insanity conjures up images of mental asylums, white coats, sedated patients, a ‘one flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ hive of panic-stricken individuals. Our 19th and 20th century foray into locking up the clinically ill has only served to heighten a perception of mental illness as being a million miles away from normal. A black and white divide between those who are sane and those who are not. As a result, we’ve come to fear any sign that we may be less than 100% normal, deeply burying signs of ‘weakness’ and fearing the stigma of what it means to be mentally ill.

Why sanity is a myth!

In reality there is no divide between being OK and being insane, we all suffer from symptoms of one kind or another. It’s only when the volume gets turned up to a deafening or debilitating pitch that it gets labelled, but it’s always there. If any one of us were to pick up the DSMV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) which lists out psychiatric conditions, we could pick out symptoms that we recognise in ourselves.  Just take a look at the list below which relates to GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder):

  1. Too much anxiety or worry over more than six months. This is present most of the time in regards to many activities.
  2. Inability to manage these symptoms
  3. At least three of the following occur:
    Note: Only one item is required in children.

    1. Restlessness
    2. Tires easily
    3. Problems concentrating
    4. Irritability
    5. Muscle tension.
    6. Problems with sleep
  4. Symptoms result in problems with functioning.
  5. Symptoms are not due to medications, drugs, other physical health problems
  6. Symptoms do not fit better with another psychiatric problem such as panic disorder

It’s the frequency and intensity (in italics) which tip these symptoms from everyday annoyances toward mental illness i.e. impaired cognition (thinking), emotions or behaviour. It’s easy to see how the tipping point is similar to physical illness. We don’t go to the doctor until the pain in our side has been there for 3 months, or the headaches have become so severe that we can’t go to work.

So what is mental health?

Earlier this year I spoke to Lord Stevenson about raising awareness of what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to mental health. Stevenson and Farmer put together an independent review of mental health in the workplace for the Prime Minister and they open their review by saying:

By mental health we do not mean “mental ill health”. We mean the mental health we all have, just as we all have physical health. The World Health Organisation defines good mental health as “A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

With that in mind I put together the diagram below to show the parallels between physical health and mental health and the comparative places in which we seek help. As always I emphasize the fact that a better understanding of psychology could help everyone at every stage of this continuum.


Realising Our Own Potential

Bringing this into the world I work the focus lies on the peak performance end of the continuum. A large part of my job is to help exceptional people remain in or reach their place of peak performance – to keep them at their absolute optimum. They need to be there so that they can realise their own potential, cope with the stresses of life but in most cases make a significant ‘contribution to his or her community’. These people have a responsibility not just to themselves but to those who they lead or influence, it’s critical that they understand their tipping points and avoid falling off the edge.

In my book I refer to stress and peak performance within the context of the Human Function Curve developed by Cardiologist Peter Nixon. This model is useful because while developed in the context of physiological stress and performance it also readily applies to mental stress and performance bringing together the similarities between physical and mental health.

The model helpfully points out that stress on either the body or the mind isn’t always detrimental—we need a certain amount in order to perform at our optimum which is just as well because and in reality we cannot escape stress. Both stress on our body and our mind are part of the equilibrium that is life. The curve illustrates that there is a need for a balance of good and bad stress, with optimal stress and performance at the midpoint.


Taken from Defining You

If you think of this in the context of an athlete training – they need to keep stretching their body out of their comfort zone in order to improve, but then allow time to rest in order to train again. That stress will cause physical discomfort when the athlete is training but also allow them to improve their performance. However too much time training without a rest will result in injury.

When it comes to our minds, at a low level of stress, we may feel bored or disinterested, finding it hard to get ourselves going.  As stress increases, so does our physiological and psychological arousal until it reaches an optimal level, enabling improved performance: for example, performing better in a presentation or exam, finding it easier to concentrate and get things done, or being more able to think on our feet. In the same way that the stress causes a degree of physical discomfort for the athlete training, the mental annoyances that personally bother us are turned up in volume as we move along the spectrum. I for example get really anxious in the run up to giving a big talk and as a result experience more of the items in list C above e.g. restlessness, irritability, muscle tension and problems with sleeping. They aren’t however sustained, once I’ve done the talk they subside. Too much stress, too many talks in one week or one month could however be crippling. In the same way as too much stress on an athletes body can cause a muscle or tendon to tear, too much stress on our mind can cause us to tip over the edge with a need to take time to recover. At this point our performance follows a downward trajectory, leading to negative emotions and overall cognitive decline, risking mental ill health.

The Cyclical Nature of Mental Health

Over the years working with high performers, I have become acutely aware of the fine line between brilliance and denial, or talent and collapse. Individuals who are at the top of their game are vulnerable and can quickly face mental deterioration. This is not helped by the picture that has been painted of insanity. The most successful high achievers see nothing of themselves in people who fit this description, in fact they often fear this more than most – mental illness has also been branded as failure and failure is a long way from what they identify themselves with. Yet we only have to look at the list of those who have fallen prey to mental illness to see how close these two ends of the spectrum lie. From the brilliantly funny and talented Robin Williams who took his own life to Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemmingway, Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf are just a few. In reality, peak performance is often knocking on the door of mental illness.

In this sense I see mental health as existing in a cyclical nature rather than on a continuum. We need to inhabit the right hand side of the cycle, moving back and forward from comfort zone, stretch zone and peak performance as we listen to our body and our mind, responding to the need to rest and refuel. Without this continual fine tune and awareness peak performance or even being stretched leads to the normal stresses of life becoming too much and tipping us over into mental illness. At this point it’s not so easy to pick up where we left off – we have to recover before we can perform at our peak again or even exist in our comfort zone. In the worst case, for those like Cobain and Williams, that recovery never happens.

The Cycle of Mental Health


We all face immense pressures which we cannot just get rid of, but we can be more aware of both in ourselves and others. We don’t generally swing from OK to mentally ill. There aren’t just two ends of a spectrum – we all pass back and forward through the cycle. If we compare it to physical health, we are not in hospital or running a marathon, there are a whole host of physical states in between. With the brain, which is the most complex organ of the body, those states cover even more shades of grey.

I’m passionate about being a voice and joining other voices to move our societal understanding of mental health toward the richness and complexity that inhabits life. To help society understand that there is no sane or insane, rather a constantly changing state of mental states, influenced by a complex set of external and internal factors. At a personal level, we not only need to understand this but learn to understand our own mental tendencies and weak spots, how to refuel, how and when to ask for help. We need to improve everyone’s understanding of behaviour so that we can not only destigmatize mental illness but so that we can optimise mental health and realise human potential across the human race.

The Myth of Sanity – was a title borrowed from the brilliant US Clinical Psychologist Dr. Martha Stout the book is below.

For more from me –

Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden – available at amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK.

From July 24th 2018 Defining You will also be available across the English speaking world e.g. amazon.com, amazon.au, amazon.ca

Defining You gives access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

Subscribe to our mailing list to get more news, tips and tools from Fiona

* indicates required

Links and references:

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing

Murden, F (2018) Defining You: How to Profile Yourself to Unlock Your Full Potential

Stevenson, D and Famer, P (2017) Thriving at Work: The Stevenson / Farmer Review of mental health and employers

Stout, M (2002) The Myth of Sanity: Tales of Multiple Personality in Everyday Life

Image: Pexels.com

How to Slow Time…

As we go about with head stuck in our phones life just passes us by. Before we know it we’ve gone from school kid to graduate, from a rookie on the job to the expert in our field. Facebook flashes up images to remind us just how quickly time flies. Only the other day a photo of my 2 year old popped up giving me a virtual slap to remind me that she is now 5. I looked across at the long-legged child and pined after the tiny person now gone. Then there’s my eldest, to me she’s still my baby yet she can look me in the eye without even standing on the bottom stair. The older I become the faster time passes, but I know that I’m not the only person to feel like that – this happens to us all. Time flies when you’re having fun – really should just read ‘Time flies’.

To understand this from a logical standpoint we can just look at the percentage of our life that a day, a week, a month becomes as we grow older. As a 5 year old a month constitutes 1/60th of our life, but by the time we’re 35 that same period of time makes up only 1/1820th. Research confirms that our assessment of time also alters with age. Psychologist Claudia Hammond who wrote ‘Time Warped’ explains that “If you ask a twenty-year-old and a seventy-year-old person to guess when a minute has passed without counting, the younger person does it more accurately, while time appears to be going slightly faster for the older person.”

We also have fewer ‘firsts’ as we get older which impacts how we perceive time. As a 5 year old there is something new every day – the first day at school, Christmas with different relatives, sports day, the summer holiday, the first trip on a boat, in an airport, on a plane, on a train….. As we grow older that first trip on a plane becomes the quarterly journey to see a client, the train ride becomes the daily commute, even people become less unexpected. The more people we meet the more and more similar everyone seems to be.  As such our brain actually switches off a little and goes into autopilot. First events and novel experiences engage our brain, creating detailed and lasting memories making it feel like time is passing more slowly. Familiar people, events and situations that are not novel (or that we don’t perceive to be) cause us to switch off – our brain doesn’t bother keeping track and time just slips by.

When it comes to my girls growing up – although the familiarity of a school routine and ferrying to this party or that inevitably speeds up the passage of time, it doesn’t completely explain the fast forward that I’m experiencing. On closer inspection I would put this down to two further factors 1) being busy and 2) being tired.

Being busy – when you have children of any age the things to remember becomes quite frankly ridiculous.  It feels like a full time job just responding to school e-mails, requests for dressing up as a smurf with less than 24 hours’ notice, invitations to school assemblies ‘tomorrow’ (replace with anything from dance recital, cross country match… ad infinitum), forgotten trainers, invites to sleepovers, parties which require presents, cards, a taxi service and so on and so forth. These leave me spinning without even adding a career and my own life into the mix. When we’re busy, regardless or not of whether that’s with kids, we don’t have time to savour experiences and see the novel. It’s all we can do to get through the day. Our brain is not in the business of reflecting and considering what’s going on, rather surviving from one moment to the next.

Tiredness – really doesn’t help matters when it comes to encoding those memories that will later give us benchmarks on the passage of time. Again, I don’t want to suggest that only those of us with children experience this, I certainty fell into the sleepless nights category in my twenties (usually through burning the candle at both ends). However when children are little, sleep is inevitably hard to come by for parents and when they get bigger there’s so much to do once they’ve gone to bed that things don’t improve. Regardless of the root cause tiredness stops our brain from encoding information effectively. The most recent research goes so far as saying that parts of our brain doze off while we’re actually awake and doing things. That’s not conducive to a rich and meaningful programming of memories which slow down our perception of time.

So how can you slow down time?

  • Get sleep – it sounds obvious but without it our days pass by in a blur (it may not be practical to get lots of sleep but that’s another matter entirely).
  • Look out…..
    • not down – you’ve heard it before but this is yet another reason to put down your phone, laptop or other device. When we’re kids we live life facing out, curiously exploring the world around us, learning new things every day. As we get older we live a more tried and tested route through life and can quite easily fall into a routine whereby we never really look up. Face out, be curious and questioning, explore the world around you, the people around you – everyone has their own story, listen.
    • not in – get out of your head, don’t live on autopilot stuck mulling over the same old things. No new memories or experiences exist within worry.
  • Reflect – savour, appreciate, have gratitude – sounds fluffy but it isn’t. Take the time to see what’s in front of you. I don’t mean force yourself – sometimes we might try so hard to appreciate something or someone in our life that we can’t engage with it. That can start a whole other cycle of guilt or feeling that it’s all a waste of time. Try and find the ways to reflect that work for you and the ways to appreciate that fit with who you are. For example, I love watching birds circling in the air, looking up at leaves on oak trees, walking through fields. You may however find these things boring. The key thing is to look for what works for you and then once you’ve found it – do it, use it.
  • For more from me –

    Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden – available at amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK.

    From July 24th 2018 Defining You will also be available across the English speaking world e.g. amazon.com, amazon.au, amazon.ca

    Defining You gives access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

Subscribe to our mailing list to get more news, tips and tools from Fiona

* indicates required





Claudia Hammond (2012) Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception

Image: www.pexels.com