The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance

The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance


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The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance by Friederike Fabritius, Hans W. Hagemann

A cutting-edge guide to applying the latest research in brain science to leadership - to sharpen performance, encourage innovation, and enhance job satisfaction.

**Featured on NPR, Success, Investor Business Daily, Thrive Global, MindBodyGreen, The Chicago Tribune, and more**

There's a revolution taking place that most businesses are still unaware of. The understanding of how our brains work has radically shifted, exploding long-held myths about our everyday cognitive performance and fundamentally changing the way we engage and succeed in the workplace.

Combining their expertise in both neuropsychology and management consulting, neuropsychologist Friederike Fabritius and leadership expert Dr. Hans W. Hagemann present simple yet powerful strategies for:

- Sharpening focus
- Achieving the highest performance
- Learning and retaining information more efficiently
- Improving complex decision-making
- Cultivating trust and building strong teams

Based on the authors' popular leadership programs, which have been delivered to tens of thousands of leaders all over the world, this clear, insightful, and engaging book will help both individuals and teams perform at their maximum potential, delivering extraordinary results.

**Named a Best Business Book of 2017 by Strategy+Business**

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143129356
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 547,314
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Friederike Fabritius is a neuropsychologist and a leading expert in the field of Neuroleadership. As an executive coach and leadership specialist, she has extensive expertise working with top executives from Fortune 500 companies. A sought-after keynote speaker, she has addressed large audiences at events hosted by prominent multinational corporations, including EY (Ernst & Young), thyssenkrupp, Trivago, and Audi.

Hans W. Hagemann, Ph.D., is managing partner/co-founder at the global leadership consultancy firm Munich Leadership Group, which counts Allianz Global Investors, Bayer, BMW, EY, Expedia, Montblanc, SAP, Siemens, and thyssenkrupp among their clients. He is a global expert on leadership and innovation who has led seminars, coaching sessions and in-depth workshops with top executives in more than 40 countries.

Read an Excerpt



How Do You Gain the Right Mix of Neurochemicals to Perform at Your Very Best When You Need To? On May 15, shortly before dawn, Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr., wearing a new suit and carrying a metal box about the size of a large briefcase, took an elevator up ten stories,1 got off, and was promptly strapped into a padded chair by waiting attendants who were dressed in white coats. The area around him was extremely cramped, similar to what you’d find in a -typical commercial airline restroom. But Cooper, known as Gordo by his friends, wasn’t sitting in an airline bathroom. He was sealed inside a cone-shaped aluminum space capsule that was perched atop 200,000 pounds of extremely flammable liquid oxygen and was about to embark on a journey of 546,167 miles.2        The year was 1963, and astronaut Gordo Cooper was scheduled to be just the sixth American to venture into outer space. This was no joy ride. Several of the previous flights had encountered problems. Serious problems. A little more than a year earlier, Cooper’s colleague John Glenn narrowly missed being incinerated in the Earth’s atmosphere after his spacecraft’s heat shield had come loose.3 Despite the fact that the astronauts were all experienced pilots who had been chosen for their mental toughness, Cooper’s mission was bound to place even the hardiest fighter pilot under significant stress.        A series of holds in the mission’s countdown were agonizing even for the control room’s seasoned technicians. As Cooper was forced to endure yet another delay, doctors on the ground were closely monitoring his biomedical telemetry. What they saw from their readouts shocked them to the point of disbelief. Although it seemed almost inconceivable, astronaut Gordo Cooper was actually taking a nap!4

Outside a modest laboratory in Lille, France, hours after the workday had officially ended and more than a century before Gordo Cooper traveled into space, a solitary bearded man, dressed in a dark vest and jacket, could be seen pacing up and down a long corridor, deep in thought, betraying a noticeable limp, and occasionally jingling the keys in his pocket to provide a kind of rhythm to his ruminations.5        The man was Louis Pasteur, and his steadfast dedication to science and study revolutionized practices in both medicine and industry. Working with extreme caution, he never left anything to chance.6 For Pasteur, hitting his performance sweet spot required incredible patience and sustained concentration. A thoughtful, reflective man, he was well aware of the secret of his success: “My strength,” he explained, “lies solely in my tenacity.”7

THE PURSUIT OF PEAK PERFORMANCE No one would have confused cocky, clean-shaven Gordo Cooper with bearded, contemplative Louis Pasteur; nor could they have ever swapped jobs. Yet both were masters at reaching a level of excellence that we commonly refer to as peak performance. Pasteur’s peak performance led to groundbreaking discoveries in science and medicine. Cooper’s peak performance didn’t come while he was sleeping. The fact that he could sleep through the preparations for a dangerous journey underscored the wide range of differences in the conditions for when people perform at their best. Whereas Gordo had the temperament of a sprinter, Pasteur had the mind-set of a marathoner. Although Cooper slept peacefully inside the cramped confines of his capsule, which he’d named Faith 7, before his Atlas 9 rocket left the launchpad, his challenge and his crucial moment of peak performance were still to come.

THE U THAT MOTIVATES YOU Anyone who has ever held a tennis racket, wielded a baseball bat, or swung a golf club knows about the sweet spot, the place where the ball responds in the best possible way. All of us strive to find our sweet spot of performance, that zone where we’re at our most productive and our most effective. What’s more, most of us know it when we get there. But how do we get there? What does it take? Without knowledge about the brain and the ability to use this knowledge, opportunities to perform at our best are squandered and the potential for great achievements remains unfulfilled. The good news: The skills it takes to improve one’s mental game in business and in life can be learned, trained, and improved.        In 1908, two psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, found that subjecting rats to mild electric shocks actually improved the animals’ performance in navigating a maze. But if the shocks were increased beyond a certain point, the rats’ ability to travel through the maze degraded rapidly. Instead of being focused and alert, the rodents would grow increasingly panicked and attempt to escape. Yerkes and Dodson referred to the electric shocks as “arousal.” We commonly call this “stress.”        The two psychologists were able to illustrate the relationship between arousal and performance on a remarkably simple graph that has come to be known as the Inverted U (see fig. 1). Peak performance comes at the top of the graph, the spot where the level of arousal is sufficient to provide optimal focus and attention. Without adequate arousal, we’re likely to feel bored or apathetic. And when arousal’s too high? Those are the instances in which our focus deteriorates into a situation of stress—or even worse, panic. Our pursuit of peak performance is a little like Goldilocks’s tasting of the Three Bears’ porridge. Our goal is to find a level that is neither too cold nor too hot but just right.        Although it’s useful to be able to have a way of visualizing peak performance, that’s obviously not the same as achieving it. To gain a better grasp of just what it takes to find and reach your sweet spot, it helps to understand how the brain is operating when you’re performing at your best—and at your worst.

THE ANATOMY OF AROUSAL The wiring in your brain isn’t really wiring at all but a series of signals that hop from one cell to another. Working together, these microscopic messengers are responsible for every action, reaction, and emotion that you experience, including the condition that Yerkes and Dodson called arousal.

NEUROTRANSMITTERS There are approximately 1 trillion nerve cells in your brain, each of which measures about one-hundredth of a millimeter.8 Physically, each nerve cell, known as a neuron, looks a bit like a splatter on your kitchen counter. There’s a blob in the middle with tiny tentacles of neuronal matter radiating from the center. Different neurons may have slightly different shapes and functions, but the basic kitchen splatter design is the same from one neuron to the next. Although these billions of neurons are tightly crowded inside your brain, their tentacles don’t physically connect. They maintain microscopic gaps called synapses and employ chemical messengers called neurotransmitters to cross the remaining distance. Like tiny cell phones, neurons are capable of both sending and receiving signals.

Where the Axon Is The senders are known as axons, and each neuron comes with only one. Yet it has plenty of dendrites, which, although they sound like members of an obscure religious sect, are actually neuronal receivers. The fact that the nerves don’t physically connect is a plus. This gives them a remarkable ability to create brand-new circuitry known as neuronal pathways without the need to get out a soldering iron or call an electrician. And like the path you make when you leave the sidewalk and cut the corner by crossing through a neighbor’s lawn, these neuronal pathways, although they don’t kill any grass, become increasingly well defined the more they are used.        This aspect of nerves isn’t limited to performance. It also explains how we learn and how habits, good ones and bad ones alike, ultimately become actions we engage in without even thinking. The path becomes so well defined over time that the neurotransmitters can almost make the journey with their eyes closed. Or, as the saying goes among cognitive scientists: Neurons that fire together wire together. And, once again, this wiring isn’t permanent, just as a path isn’t permanent. But if you keep using it, it becomes as passable as a paved road. By the same token, if you stop going that way, the route gradually becomes fainter over time. That explains in part why you can recall your own phone number with relative ease but can’t remember any of your high school French.        Although more than one hundred neurotransmitters have been identified, from the standpoint of peak performance, only three are truly important: dopamine, noradrenaline, and acetylcholine. We call them the “DNA of Peak Performance.”

DOPAMINE Dopamine, as one journalist suggests, has become “the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters” for the way in which it has spiced up the science pages with tales of pleasure, addiction, and reward.9 It seems to have captured the public’s interest and imagination, probably because of its association with excitement, novelty, and risk.        Dopamine is involved in your ability to update information in memory and also affects your ability to focus on the task at hand.10 It provides a druglike reward that makes you want more. And, as with many drugs, the high wears off and you often need more the next time to get the same effect. That’s why dopamine is known as a novelty neurotransmitter. Its effects are strongest when the stimulus that generates it is new. This explains in part the enthusiasm you may feel when you start a new project and why the thrill isn’t usually as strong after you’ve been working on it for a while.        Dopamine plays a number of roles in the body, including aiding motor control. But in the context of the brain and peak performance, it’s the fun chemical. To truly be performing at peak level, you should be having fun. The experience should feel rewarding. If you aren’t feeling this way, you may still be performing better than usual, but you probably haven’t reached your peak.

WHAT’S ALL THE RUSH? NORADRENALINE! Almost everyone is familiar with noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine), or at least thinks they are. It’s the rush we get both when we bungee jump and when we react in surprise to the sudden lunge of a neighbor’s “friendly” dog. Noradrenaline’s primary purpose is to ensure your survival. It was evolutionarily designed to help you respond quickly to any threat, real or perceived. It does so by regulating your attention and alertness. Studies indicate that higher levels of noradrenaline lead to greater accuracy when detecting errors in a visual error-detecting task when we are awake, alert, and up to the task.        Noradrenaline is at an optimal level when you feel slightly overchallenged; it leads to a “this is tricky but I think I can handle it” feeling. It is also released when you push yourself to perform a difficult task better, faster, or with fewer resources.

FROM SPOTLIGHT TO LASER: ACETYLCHOLINE The third of the three neurochemicals that make up the DNA of Peak Performance is acetylcholine, which is found in abundance in a surprising segment of the population. In fact, there’s a very special group of human beings that can probably teach you a great deal about peak performance. Look around and you’ll find that they seem to be practically everywhere. Are they dedicated research chemists? World-class professional athletes? Risk-taking entrepreneurs? Chess grandmasters? Award-winning sales reps? Politicians? Not even close. And yet, you might even have one of them living under your very roof. And no, it isn’t your mother-in- law. Or that sullen twentysomething who still lives at home and has mistaken your house for a combination all-you-can-eat restaurant and Laundromat. It’s an infant. That’s right: babies!        If you’ve ever spent any amount of time with babies, then you probably recognize that they’re some of the most alert and observant little people on the planet. Although they may be excreting a lot of unpleasant stuff, they’re simultaneously soaking up sights, sounds, tastes, and smells like high-powered, turbocharged, diaper-wearing cognitive vacuum cleaners. The same mechanism you use to achieve peak performance every now and then, a baby is operating practically nonstop for the first few years of her life. And the chemical behind this extraordinary performance is acetylcholine.        Acetylcholine comes from a part of the brain called the nucleus basalis. Babies release acetylcholine without even trying. Neuroscientists refer to this as the “critical period of neuroplasticity,” a time when brand-new brains are extremely receptive to new information and are constantly establishing neuronal pathways. As neuroscientist Michael Merzenich explains it, during critical plasticity “the learning machinery is continuously on.”11 As adults we’re not so lucky. The automatic mechanism for extraordinary focus shuts down when we’re still quite young and must be operated manually from then on.        So how do we as adults flip the switch that turns on acetylcholine? Once this critical period is over, there are only a handful of ways we can do it: when we make a conscious effort to pay attention, when we get physical exercise, or when we are exposed to something important, surprising, or novel—in other words, when our brain releases dopamine.        Another way to look at the DNA of Peak Performance is to think of it as a prizewinning photograph. Noradrenaline prompts you to point your camera in just the right direction, dopamine helps you to zoom in until you have a pleasing composition, and finally there’s acetylcholine, which enables you to sharpen your focus until it’s picture-perfect. Get only one or two of these elements just right and what you have is a snapshot. Add the third and suddenly it’s a work of art.

ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL The depiction of the performance curve as a simple inverted U provides a clear and concise explanation for how performance works. But as you may have already noticed, the graph doesn’t have any units. How do you measure arousal? In inches? In ergs? In Scoville units?1 In other words, exactly how much arousal is required to reach peak performance? The short answer is that we can’t really say. The longer answer is that it can vary dramatically from person to person and from one task or situation to another. There’s no universal standard for optimum arousal. In that respect, arousal has a lot in common with spicy food. 

SPICY, BUT NOT AS SPICY AS HERS Put yourself for a moment in the role of a server at a Thai restaurant in California. A well-dressed couple stroll in and sit down in a booth just below the framed pictures of the king and queen. When you come over to take their order, she orders “Thai basil with pork, very spicy,” while he asks for the same dish, but with chicken, adding, almost as an afterthought, “but not as spicy as hers.” What are you going to tell the chef? You have a hunch that if he makes the dishes “very spicy” according to the standards of the small village outside Bangkok where he grew up, your customers may single-handedly worsen one of the state’s periodic droughts by constantly asking to have their water glasses refilled. Who knows? They may even sue.

Table of Contents

Introduction The Science of Leadership ix

Part 1 Reaching Your Peak 1

1 Find Your Sweet Spot 3

2 Regulate Your Emotions 29

3 Sharpen Your Focus 73

Part 2 Changing Your Brain 115

4 Manage Habits 117

5 Unleash Your Unconscious 142

6 Foster Learning 174

Part 3 Building Dream Teams 203

7 Thrive on Diversity 205

8 Cultivate Trust 228

9 Develop the Team of the Future 246

Final Note: Keeping the Brain in Mind 284

Notes 285

Acknowledgments 305

About the Authors 313

Index 315

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