We all know that the body and mind are interconnected. What is it about the body and the brain that are still blind spots for leaders?
Historically, we’ve always treated the body and the brain as two different entities. For example, it is a misunderstanding that we do not have to pay attention to the body, in order to focus on psychology. So, leadership seems to be from the shoulder up. Even when I was studying neuroscience, everything that I was learning was from the shoulder up and there was very little body integration. There was little understanding on how the body affects how we process emotions. We now know that an effective leader has to have an understanding on what we think, what we feel and what we do.
It’s only in the last couple of years that the body and brain integration is starting to become more mainstream. Fifteen years ago, it was very difficult to start a conversation in any organization about the bodies of their leaders. It was always around behaviour, communication, strategy, decision making and other things. Nobody thought of the whole human being and that if the body is influencing the mind, then potentially the mind can influence the body.
If we want sustainable leaders and a sustainable organisation, then it is important that we integrate the body and the brain as both are important for performance. Organisations and HR must make this a part of their development model and not just their wellness model. The conversation around this needs to happen at a deeper level. This is what drove me to write my first book ‘Headstrong Performance’.
I’ve often seen that leaders don’t look at things holistically. They either focus on endurance or breathing or something else and miss out on other things. What would be your advice to leaders here?
Many of the research done so far on brain functions and exercise has been in the cardiovascular space. And that’s not because cardiovascular exercise is the only form of exercise that builds brain function. But it’s because it provides the quickest results. Universities and places that do research want quick processes and results wherever possible. So, it is more tempting for the scientific world to focus on cardiovascular exercise.
Slowly but surely, there are some research studies coming up that are looking at other forms of exercise and brain function. This is interesting to me, because when I was writing my thesis many years ago, I developed a training and exercise programme for brain function. What I noticed back then was that different forms of exercise target different areas in the brain and different executive functions.
When we go to the gym, we do not expect to get a good physique by training just our biceps. Similarly, like any muscle, we have to flex all parts of the brain. There is an area in the brain called the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex, and that part of the brain is responsible for impulse inhibition. This is really important as it stops you from losing your temper or making emotional or quick decisions. Strength training helps this part of the brain. It helps you to pause and reflect, develop a bit more patience, etc. So, when we do resistance training, especially heavy resistance training, those neurons get fired up way more than for example, regular cardiovascular exercise. The various emotional centres in the brain respond to the exercise. If you think about it, 85% of the word ‘Emotion’ is dedicated to movement (e-motion). There is an understanding that certain ways of exercising triggers certain emotions or the way we process those emotions.
I believe that in the future, various forms of exercise will be identified to target and activate different brain functions. I find this exciting. It will be an interesting space to go into rather then doing the same thing over and over again.
In Yoga, we lift our own body weight. Do you think Yoga covers all the dimensions that can improve the brain? Or do we still need to consider other forms?
This depends on the type of yoga that you do. It could be Hatha, Ashtanga or Kundalini and any of these forms of yoga will trigger the brain in different ways because they work with different intensities. Some are faster, some slower, some are more intense, and others are more powerful. Yoga and ayurvedic medicine have been practiced for more than 5000 years, so there is some kind of holistic way that yoga was prescribed for certain mental functions.
In my book ‘The five Energies of Horrible Bosses’, I wrote that Yoga the way we know it now did not exist till 200 years ago. The British did not like the idea of people in India practicing Vedic medicine because it was not part of Western medical training. So, a lot of the Vedic practitioners had to separate out the yoga idea from the medicine. This was then tolerated as it became exercise. But if we look at Vedic medicine, which is one of oldest forms of medicine in the world, yoga was one of the medicines prescribed along with a good diet. So, it is a holistic approach. I would not be surprised if somebody did research on the different forms of yoga and how it triggers different parts of the brain.
There’s an interesting statement that the greatest gap in human advancement is between awareness and action. We know that exercise is important, but it is the biggest trade out on a busy day. What are the motivators for people and leaders to take action?
It all boils down to the integrated model of change and our understanding of what we go through psychologically. When I was studying the transtheoretical model of change, I found that there were a couple of other models as well. So, I integrated all of those together to create an integrative model of change. What it comes down to is that we go through different stages of readiness, until we’re actually able to take action. If you are not at all thinking of exercise, then you are in a state called ‘pre-contemplation’. The next stage is when we do become aware and start contemplating and thinking about it. The third stage is when we acknowledge that we do need to start doing something. We make plans and prepare ourselves. The final stage is the action that we take. So, everybody goes through these different phases of readiness. There is one more stage after this which is the maintenance and relapse phase. We all fall off the wagon. We relapse and that is something to be aware of as well.
As a coach, I have a learned that very often we have an expectation that everybody is in a state of readiness and action. But most people are not, and I respect where they are, and in which phase they are in. If people are ready to move to the next phase, then there are coaching techniques to help them along. I come from the fitness industry. Thirty years ago, I was a personal trainer and the coaching in this industry was very prescriptive. I run another company now where we certify, and train personal trainers and we train them to coach people through behaviour change. This is something that is difficult for personal trainers to understand. But the trainers who do understand behaviour change and work with clients in that space have the greatest success.
You said in one of the forums that the brain is connected to the feet and not to the butt. How should leaders counterbalance the ills of sitting for long hours?
There are lots of neurons or neural bundles which travel all the way down the body, through the spine and end up on the bottom of our feet. There is a direct connection between the brain and our feet, and our brain gets triggered by our feet and that’s why we have things like reflexology. Unfortunately, we don’t have those same connections in the buttocks. When we are sitting, we are actually switching the brain off a little bit versus when we are standing. It has been scientifically proven that the brain has a tendency to be more active and more alert when we’re on our feet. So, my advice would be to sit less.
COVID has actually forced everybody to innovate, and innovation requires a lot of intellectual agility. What is it about neuroplasticity that is underappreciated by leaders in this context?
Neuroplasticity is the utility of the neurons in the brain to be able to fire in different sequences and be able to apply themselves in different ways. There is something that I call default neural pathways, and these come from habitual behaviours that we do over the many decades of our lives. These create behavioural patterns, and the repetitive behaviour creates an operating system just like a computer. This operating system creates our mindsets, belief systems, our capacity for decision making, our ability to see opportunities and so much more.
People struggle with Neuroplasticity because the brain has created these default neurological pathways that have become strong and comfortable for the brain. It takes the brain a tremendous amount of energy to rewire itself. So, the brain will always try to function within the neural pathway that has already been created. For most people, the opportunity for neuroplasticity occurs only if we are willing to make ourselves uncomfortable. This can happen willingly, or as we have seen recently with Covid, when we have no other choice.
When we get thrown into a sink or swim situation, the brain realises that it needs to do something and that is when agility happens. Look at how much innovation happened around the world during the pandemic. People were forced to find other ways of functioning with their brains. Imagine if the entire population could do that voluntarily. Imagine what we could accomplish every year.
Stress or other situations can cause an impulsive reaction. There is a lot that happens inside us that triggers this reaction. How can we bring about harmony to what is happening inside?
I’d like to cite cognitive behavioural therapy approach here. This is about our thoughts, feelings and our actions, which make up the three sides of a triangle. And they all influence each other. Unfortunately, many of us apply only one or two of them and never all three simultaneously. For example, there’s a large population of people out there who only think and act, who don’t really take into consideration what they’re feeling. So, their decisions are tactical and strategic. On the other hand, there’s also a large group of people who feel and act. And those are the people who have an emotional impulse and react right away. Some are hyper reactive, and this can have consequences. And then there are also people who only think and feel and feel and think and they basically don’t do anything.
The way that we create a holistic piece is our ability to do all three at the same time. To be able to think, to understand our feelings and then to act. We need to create a dialogue around those three simultaneously. When we are thinking and deciding on an action, we must take a step back and ask ourselves, What feelings are involved here? What are my emotions that are driving me or influencing my thought process? The same happens if you are an emotional person and have the tendency to react. You must have the ability to pause and think for a minute. To assess what’s actually happening. And then finally we have those who are thinking and feeling. They need ask themselves, What kind of actions could I take? What could I do to better my situation? What’s available to me?
Creating a little bit of space between feeling and acting, thinking and acting, or feeling and thinking helps with bringing in clarity.
How should leaders develop and tap their intuition better? We tend to disregard our intuition because more of logic and facts are available. So how can leaders balance both?
I’m going to quote Eckhart Tolle here, where he says that Wisdom does not live in the mind, it lives in the body. Intuition comes down to our ability to sense things that are received by the body. You have to think of the human body as a big antenna that not only projects energy out, but also receives energy and impulses. The skull is a very thick bone that won’t let any vibrations in. The brain does not receive any kind of information easily, unless it comes from the top of the skull, which is where the chakras are. So, the information received is very dull. On the other hand, the body is made of soft tissue that can receive vibrations and energy. This then travels through the base of the spine and up to the brain into the emotional centres of the brain, where it creates feelings around what feels right and what feels wrong. Receiving the signals through our body affects our ability to access our intuition and decision making. This takes trust.
People believe what is going on in their heads and the more we get stuck in our heads, the less we are able to access intuition. Most people are working only at 30% capacity because the feeling and sensing spaces are largely untapped. I do have a disclaimer here though. Most leaders are able to access their intuition. Even if they get spreadsheets and lot of data, they are inspired to take a decision and some of that comes from intuition. But this can be enhanced. There is more that people can do to tap into their intuition. At the moment this is largely ignored.
What is your own personal transformation story that other leaders can learn from?
My biggest transformation story was when I was a young child. I studied martial arts and that was my introduction to energy work and intuition. At the same time, when I was a teenager, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety to the point where I felt paralysed. As a young adult this got out of hand, and I became a drug addict and an alcoholic. I was very lost during this time. It was my work through martial arts that helped me. I had a great opportunity to work with a great martial arts expert. He helped me understand the holistic perspective. When I started to pull myself together, a whole world opened up that shaped me to who I am today. Back then, I was young, and I blamed myself and thought I was dysfunctional. Mental illnesses had to be masked. But today, there is more done for mental illness. This was my biggest transformation. I wouldn’t be the coach that I am today if I had not gone through that process. We are all human and I’ve learnt to celebrate my imperfections.
When we get thrown into a sink or swim situation, the brain realises that it needs to do something and that is when agility happens. Look at how much innovation happened around the world during the pandemic. People were forced to find other ways of functioning with their brains. Imagine if the entire population could do that voluntarily. Imagine what we could accomplish every year.”
CEO – Headstrong Performance, Author, Life and Leadership Coach
MARCEL DAANE is the founder and CEO of Headstrong Performance. His critically acclaimed book by the same name is about improving mental performance with nutrition, exercise and neuroscience. Marcel is a certified life and leadership coach and the Recipient of the 2016 Global Coaching Leadership Award and the 2012 Global HR Excellence Award. Marcel holds a postgraduate degree in the Neuroscience of Leadership and an Undergraduate Degree in Complementary Medicine coupled with advanced certifications in fitness, sports, and performance coaching.