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Effective Leadership Takes Heart as well as Smarts


Many leaders got where they are because they’re smart and had been successful in their work as individual contributors. When they become people leaders, they may continue to use their well-honed logical brain but forget that they are now leaders who also have to use their hearts in order to engage and inspire others.

Luckily, science continues to help us to learn more about how our bodies have “little brains” in unexpected physical places. This can inform leaders in how to stay balanced in their work by using their hearts as well as their smarts.

It seems we have neurons—those cells that facilitate the thinking work for us—in places other than our brains. Recent discoveries have helped us to learn that the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than vice-versa. And these heart signals have a role in regulating emotional processing.

When negative emotions and stress come into play for us, they send messages to the brain that actually inhibit higher cognitive function. So, if you’ve ever been taken over by strong emotions and realized that you couldn’t think clearly, this this the reason.

Yet in times of calm and low stress, the heart facilitates the brain’s cognitive function, reinforcing positive feelings and emotional stability.

What might this mean for your leadership?

Relationships can be made or broken based on how you express emotions. Since the heart has some say whether you are able to think clearly about how you respond to someone, a pause before acting out against them may be in order. Being in a calm state that makes you able to rationally think through your course of action would be the wisest thing to do. Take a minute, an hour, overnight, or a week before you step into conflict when you can. Move forward with that tough conversation when you are in a calm state.

Decisions that require you to call on your vast store of technical knowledge are similarly best made in a calm state. Take time to think and reflect in a quiet environment (p.s. many people do their best thinking in the shower!). Asking yourself what your heart thinks can be surprisingly effective in bringing more empathy to your brain-work when you make technical decisions that impact the people around you.

Stress in general needs to be managed so that you can perform with both your head and your heart in mind. Take walks in nature (which, science has shown, can foster serenity), begin a reflective practice (meditation or yoga, for example), have some fun in your life, and exercise. You can’t always control the stressors at work, but you can control your reaction to them when you actively manage stress. Your knowledge of the “little brain” in your heart can help you to stay on top of your stress and exercise the empathy that is needed in your leadership.

When you are in a situation that requires you to “bring your whole self” as a leader, don’t just rely on your brain to carry the day for you. Ask yourself, What does my heart think?

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive consulting firm.

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