Your Brain on Leadership | Weatherhead

Your Brain on Leadership

Posted 1.20.2012

by James Van Doren

“Power stress is part of the experience that results from the exercise of influence and sense of responsibility felt in leadership positions.”
-Richard Boyatzis, PhD, and Annie McKee, Resonant Leadership,Harvard Business School Press, 2005


Our high-pressure culture tends to emphasize “mind over matter,” but research is beginning to demonstrate that sometimes matter trumps mind.While we all deal with everyday stresses, sometimes they add up to be too much for our brain to cope with, especially when our resources are worn thin (think: looming deadline, family conflict, lack of sleep, or that bag of chips you should have skipped).For leaders, the results of constant stress may mean blowing up and alienating their employees or, worse yet, making a snap decision that falls into ethical grey areas that can cost the organization millions of dollars in litigation – and the lost faith of customers.


How does stress negatively impact performance?It happens in a variety of ways.It seems one of the biggest culprits is the hormone cortisol.Too much for too long negatively impacts everything from our memory to our immune system.But cortisol isn’t all bad.It helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle and, depending on our confidence in our ability to handle a task (and our mental resources), a little boost may actually improve performance.


Ultimately, stress can work for you or against you.Whether it is a help or a dangerous hindrance depends on the tools you have to cope with the stress, and for how long you are asked to handle it.For leaders, there is a special kind of stress that Distinguished University Professor Richard Boyatzis, PhD, H.R. Horvitz Professor in Family Business and Professor of Organizational Behavior, has termed “power stress”.It can cause leaders, who often make weighty decisions, to fall into the “sacrifice syndrome” where they continually push through high stress situations and burn more and more of their mental and physical resources without taking time to renew.The results: poor decision, fatigue, lack of empathy, and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.


This should be especially important to organizations that are concerned about people performance and the bottom line. It is estimated that the cost to American companies from stress-related illness is about $300 billion per year.  That doesn’t even take into account the cost of poor decision-making that can sometimes be the result of chronic stress and fatigue.With these terrible downsides, it is no wonder that more organizations and more executives are trying new ways to learn to better cope with stress and reduce its damaging consequences.A Google search of “mindfulness programs” delivers almost 3 million results, many on programs aimed at executives and managers.


It isn’t likely that the pace of business is going to slow down, or that the consequences of our decisions are going to become less stressful.So the new research in areas like mindfulness, vitality, and resilience may just be what the doctor ordered to boost US productivity – and improve the capabilities of our minds and our bodies.


CWRU’s Weatherhead Executive Education has introduced a new set of executive education programs that incorporates the complex interplay between emotional, intellectual, and physical wellbeing.The first of these programs, Vital Awareness: Reaching Peak Effectiveness (February 29), provides knowledge and tools to enhance resilience and amplify vitality. This aids in the development of two critical emotional intelligence competencies: emotional self-awareness and emotional self-regulation.The program is co-led by Tom Morledge, MD, Founder of Revati Wellness and formerly with the Cleveland Clinic, and Angela Passarelli, a Weatherhead Executive Coach. 


The following program, Leadership Presence: Understanding and Communicating through Body Language (March 1), focuses on the nonverbal cues, signs and signals that can often remain overlooked, but provide us with immeasurable insight ability to develop an authentic leadership presence.Workshop leader Jackie Stevenson is the founder and CEO of Spirit of Leadership LLC. She is a Weatherhead Executive Coach, consultant, therapist, and educator.


For more programs on this topic, please visit the Personal Impact and Empowerment series.

Interested in learning more about Weatherhead programs? Request more information or apply now, or register for one of over 70 open enrollment courses through Executive Education.

Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University cultivates creativity, innovation, and purpose-driven leadership to design a better world.