Being 007 doesn’t just require physical strength, but psychological resilience too – and that’s something all business leaders can benefit from. Here’s how to set about maximising your mental brawn…
A good leader possesses numerous attributes – confidence, charisma, intuition, intelligence, and the ability to influence and inspire. But there is one other quality that frequently gets overlooked – mental toughness. In the real world, secret agents undergo gruelling psychological training exercises to ensure they are mentally fit enough to go out into the field. But you don’t have to be a super-spy to benefit from strengthening the old grey matter – business leaders need clarity to make the right decisions.
All leaders can improve their cognitive function and power and transform themselves into better decision-makers, problem-solvers, multitaskers and generally more resilient bosses.
The brain as a muscle
All it takes is a little brain training. The human brain consists of about 75 per cent water and is made up of soft tissue – it can be viewed as a muscle, and just like any other muscle, it can be strengthened. Exercising the brain won’t make it visibly grow in size like arm and leg muscles, but it can cause positive, lasting change that transforms a good leader into a truly exceptional one. This can be achieved by exposing the brain to fresh experiences and information, which will create new and permanent pathways within it that allow a person to think and act differently.
Until the 1970s, received wisdom had it that our brain function was essentially fixed throughout adulthood. The realisation that this was not the case gave birth to the modern-day psychological concept of neuroplasticity, which deals with the brain’s ability to reorganise and restructure itself. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one example of this, and it focuses on challenging negative thoughts in order to permanently alter the brain’s neural pathways. It’s now regularly used to treat a range of mental health issues, including work-related stress.
Formerly a psychotherapist and now chief executive with the employee assistance firm CiC, Kate Nowlan says: “Mental strength is an essential component of good leadership. Every organisation will face challenges, both internally and externally, and a mentally strong leader will be able to maintain the vision of their company, and to encourage their staff, even when times are tough.”
Another way to boost mental mettle is by practising mindfulness. It’s become a buzzword in the business world but the hype is backed up by hard science, which shows mindfulness (non-judgmental, present-moment awareness) can increase brain density. This year, scientists from the University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology carried out several studies to locate areas of the brain affected. They identified two particularly relevant to business professionals – the ACC anterior cortex and hippocampus, which are linked to problem-solving and stress resilience.
Meditation and yoga are both forms of mindfulness renowned for improving cognitive function and strength, helping the mind enter a relaxed state of ‘flow’, which gives it much-needed recuperation.
Another study, by biomedical engineers at the University of Minnesota last year, showed people who practise yoga and meditation long term learn three times faster than those who don’t. Neuroscientist Dr Claudia Aguirre, one of the team of experts from the app Headspace, says meditation has such a powerful effect on the brain because it is a form of “mind fitness”.
“Like physical fitness, mind fitness can be strengthened through attention and concentration practices such as meditation, which literally change the brain structurally and functionally. Just as you build up muscle strength to prevent injury or weakness, mind fitness builds resiliency that leads to faster recovery from psychological stress,” she explains.
Taking time out from technology helps. For many executives, long breaks away from their computers or mobiles can seem impossible. But unplugging does wonders to restore brain health. Multiple studies have shown that the brain tissue of people having too much screen time actually shrinks. “We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” says Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.
Then there’s physical exercise. As well as keeping you trim, working up a sweat in the gym floods the brain with chemicals that enhance functions such as memory, problem solving and decision making. Likewise, foods such as oily fish contain omega-3 fats that can ward off memory loss. Blueberries help protect the brain from oxidative stress, and nuts and seeds are good sources of vitamin E, which combats cognitive decline. Others – turkey, bananas, walnuts – increase serotonin, the chemical associated with happiness, relaxation and aiding sleep.
But of all the psychological or physical aids that bolster brain power, the most important is water. Brains depend on proper hydration to function optimally, otherwise their cells lose efficiency. So if you want to be the Bond in your boardroom, drink up.
To learn more about CiC and its employee assistance programme, visit cic-eap.co.uk
Mental resilience case study: Carolyn Pearson
IoD Leeds member Carolyn Pearson had to build her own mental toughness after almost suffering a breakdown when she launched her company, Maiden Voyage, in 2013.
“I had been working as head of technology for ITV, the BBC and easyJet,” she says, “and was on a business trip in LA in 2008 when I came up with the idea for an online company that connects businesswomen travelling abroad. I launched the company while still holding down a very demanding job and by the time I decided to do it full time, I had reached burnout.”
Pearson began suffering panic attacks and her confidence rock-bottomed. “I worried about everything – whether I’d made a terrible mistake, how I’d manage financially, whether I could return to my old profession if things didn’t work out.
“I knew the only way I’d cope was to improve my mental and emotional strength, to accept I wasn’t infallible and look after myself. So I began meditating, exercised, drank more water, turned off my phone and laptop for long periods. I compiled a list of goals and focused on them to create a more positive mindset. It worked. Gradually my anxiety dropped. I felt stronger and able to manage whatever came my way.”
Maiden-Voyage is now a global company with more than 7,000 members and 40 global ambassadors across 70 countries. “That period was my lowest point,” she adds. “But resilience pulled me through it. It is such a huge asset when running your own company. If you take a knock, you have to get up quickly because it can cost you money otherwise.”