Thursday, December 10, 2009

Leaders and the brain

Christmas is traditionally a time for happiness, relaxation, and 'the family'. But for some people it can be a time of utter depression and despondency.

Over recent weeks this has been brought home to me again.

I am not a clinical psychologist - my doctorate is in organisational psychology - but I did train as a counsellor and, over the years, I have found that training invaluable. I don't run a counselling practice - I'm a mentor, coach and facilitator - but there are times when mentoring, coaching, and counselling have very blurred lines separating them.

In these blogs I have (with permission) referred to people having problems and I have indicated the ways in which they are dealing with these - in my experience, helping people deal with personal problems is a not uncommon part of mentoring and coaching. But I have made reference, too, to some people who have been unable to cope - their problems reached the point where they felt that death was a preferable alternative. Last week this again came to the fore but, this time, the person involved was prepared to talk with me and find a way forward.

In today's society we are bombarded by so much information and are forced to confront so many competing issues that leaders can get distracted from "people issues" to "a bigger picture" - the organisation overall. The result is that, just when our people need us most, we are 'missing in action'. Sometimes the more senior a person is in the organisational hierarchy the less likely it is that he or she will ask for help from their leader or even acknowledge to their leader that a personal problem exists let alone that they are having trouble coping. Too often we seem to expect our managers and executives to be 'super people' who can deal with work, personal, and social issues efficiently and effectively without help. The result is burnout, inappropriate behaviour, declining productivity, or all the above.

Andrew Mowat (, John Corrigan, and I have just had our new book published ("The Success Zone", in which we explore our learning in neuroscience and the way in which changing the locus of control in our brains can have significant positive impact on our leader behaviour and on leadership overall.

We use the term "red zone" to explain behaviour where a person feels their survival is threatened and they see themselves as under attack or inadequate. In extreme cases this can lead to depression and feeling of total hopelessness. We contrast this with the "blue zone" which is where people have learned to shift their brain's locus of control to the neofrontal cortex - a situation in which change can be contemplated without feeling threatened and in which creativity and innovation can occur. In the "blue zone" there is no miraculous, deus ex machina changing of the situation with which we are confronted - but there is a significant shift in the way we deal with the situation.

Fortunately, last week, the person with whom I was working was prepared to learn how to change the locus of control in their brain. They still have a long way to go - but now they can see some way forward and are prepared to work on this. There is now a reasonable chance that Christmas might be a lot more positive for them and their family.

More information about Doug Long and how I may be able to help you at

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