Train your brain to be more strategic

Strategic leadership involves setting a long-term vision and inspiring others to achieve it. It’s about helping an enterprise navigate through challenges and across time toward a goal that seems almost, quite possibly, out of reach. The focus is on creating something that has staying power and long-term value. What it isn’t, is putting out fires in your own narrow domain. Strategic leaders’ aren’t content to “stay in their lane” – they contribute and influence broadly.

For many developing leaders, strategic leadership is a competency that takes time to get one’s arms around. It involves complex behaviors – both interpersonal and intellectual – playing out across a long time horizon. It requires tolerance for ambiguity and the ability to manage complexity. It requires a kind of concentrated perspective that can be at odds with the demands of the day-to-day.

This article gives us some insights into how we can leverage neuroscience to build capacity to make more strategic contributions. Different brain regions appear to have different functions, which, when they work together, tend to be associated with different kinds of thinking:

  • Low Road“: This circuit involves the Habit Center (basal ganglia) and the Reactive Self-Referencing Center (ventral medial prefrontal cortex). Activity on the low road is associated with satisfying needs and desires, emphasizes expedience and immediate value. Because the focus is on rapid problem solving, decisions made when the low road is activated are often compulsive decisions.

Motto: Do what feels right

  • High Road“: This circuit involves the Executive Center (lateral prefrontal cortex) and the Deliberative Self-Referencing Center (dorsal medial prefrontal cortex). Activity on the high road is associated with achieving long-term goals and emphasizes value to the entire system. Because they rely on a broader perspective and emphasize long-term value, decisions made when the high road is activated are often wise decisions.

Motto: Do what is most needed

Unfortunately, even “strategic thinkers” tend to get stuck on the low-road rut and rely on this level of thinking. Happily, we also know from neuroscience about the principle of neuroplasticity. While mental activity is associated with physical brain circuits, it is distinct from them and can actually affect them. Focused mental activity can be purposefully directed to change the brain and therefore change patterns in thinking. Two cognitive habits that promote strategic thinking by increasing traffic on the high road are mindfulness and mentalizing.

Mindfulness is well-known to most of us by now – it is the practice of establishing and attempting to maintain a clear-minded awareness of one’s own mental activity and experience. Practicing mindfulness engages the Executive Center, which is also associated with stress reduction and emotional intelligence. Mindfulness essentially strengthens the link between the Executive Center and the “Emotion-Based Warning Center” (amygdala, insula, orbital frontal cortex) so that our minds aren’t “emotionally hijacked” into making irrational or fear-based decisions.

Mentalizing, also known as “theory of mind,” is the practice of seeing things from others’ perspective. It activates the Deliberative Self-Referencing Center, which asks “What are others thinking? What are they likely to do?” Interestingly, mentalizing is actually lower among higher-status individuals despite its importance to strategic leadership. This parallels research showing that empathy is also lower among people who feel powerful. It takes mental strength to cultivate and maintain the ability to imagine from others’ points of view.

The consistent practice of both mindfulness and mentalizing will strengthen connections between regions of the brain that promote strategic thinking. A calm, clear mind is unfettered by alarming red herrings that distort the thought process with deceptive messages. Purposeful mentalizing affords a more distant perspective – of others, yourself, the landscape – that helps you perceive more objectively. Daily hassles and urgent demands make it difficult to stay in this zone, but with practice, even your own brain will conspire to assist you.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” —Hebb’s Law

“Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things” —Miyamoto Musashi

“Strategy Execution is the responsibility that makes or breaks executives” —Alan Branche and Sam Bodley-Scott