How to Harness Your Brain’s Hidden Capacity for Compassion to Become a Better Leader
Entrepreneurs who can’t rise above their stress threaten their companies’ health.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
To control your outer world you must first control your inner world.
Due Quach addresses that message to two audiences: inner-city youth and business leaders. A refugee from Vietnam who was raised in a poor, violent neighborhood of Philadelphia, Quach went on to Harvard where she felt lost and alienated. She later applied lessons from neuroscience and meditation to cope with her own PTSD. Those experiences propelled her in 2014 to found Calm Clarity, a nonprofit that helps people in stressful conditions manage their emotions for better outcomes. She trains both young people from backgrounds like her own and business leaders, including entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 executives.
Quach's work with business leaders helps fund her social-venture outreach. But the similarities between the two groups aren't spurious, she says. Both inner-city youth and business leaders live under constant stress; they experience frequent crises and often respond in ways that make things worse. And while reactivity and anger among teenagers can result in violence, in the business world, she says, "you make decisions and people lose their jobs or the stock price fails." The practices laid out in her new book, Calm Clarity: How to Use Science to Rewire Your Brain for Greater Wisdom, Fulfillment, and Joy, apply to both groups, she says.
Your brain's three voices
Quach identifies three patterns of neural-circuitry activation that produce different emotions and behaviors. She labels them Brain 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. In Brain 1.0, which she associates with activation of the "fight or flight response," fear and anxiety dominate. Decision-making stalls as leaders obsess over what has gone wrong and why it will doubtless keep going wrong. Risk tolerance declines, and change must be avoided at all costs. Compassion shrivels as leaders seek scapegoats to share blame. Violent anger wells up, or leaders push people away.
Brain 2.0 is characterized by short-term, transactional thinking. With their reward systems highly activated, leaders seek the instant gratification of the win--long-term consequences be damned. Change is acceptable to the extent it can be exploited. While leaders in Brain 2.0 may not yell, they will likely strong-arm people to get what they want. Employees are perceived as the means to an end, so compassion, again, takes a hit.
In Brain 3.0 the systems for executive function and self-awareness are highly activated, resulting in something akin to wisdom. Leaders see the bigger picture and thoughtfully weigh the up- and downsides of options. Change becomes an opportunity for reinvention. Employees are perceived as human beings worthy of compassion and able--if inspired by the leader--to help the organization achieve great things.
Everyone experiences all three emotional states from time to time, Quach says. That's not a bad thing. For example when deadlines loom, the rat-a-tat execution typical of Brain 2.0 can help you nail it. Still, the goal is to maximize time spent in Brain 3.0.
Mood affects culture
Maximizing Brain 3.0--what Quach calls a state of "well-being and mastery"--is particularly important for leaders, whose organizations may suffer or thrive based on the boss's dominant emotional state. For example, leaders who idle in 2.0 "create a lot of anxiety because everyone is chasing rewards," Quach says. "We must achieve 10 percent growth or die. The long-term consequences get lost." Leaders in 3.0, by contrast, "motivate people to be their best selves and help the company achieve its mission, which is aligned with their own."
Employees also learn what triggers the leader into 1.0. "If they know he gets angry when he hears bad news, they'll stop communicating with him," Quach says.
Life experiences affect an individual's dominant state. For example, people exposed to "nurturing caregivers and mentors" are more likely to dwell in 3.0, Quach says. Also, people with "high self-efficacy"--the belief that they can affect the external world rather than submit while the external world has its way with them--are natural 3.0-ers. "My guess is a lot of entrepreneurs have a huge capacity to be in Brain 3.0 because, as an entrepreneur, I don't want to be defined by my environment," Quach says. At the same time, "loss of control can be a trigger for many founders."
For leaders who feel themselves lapsing into angry, chaotic, or self-gratifying behaviors, simply being aware of their emotional states and calming down long enough to identify what triggered them is helpful. "Pay attention to the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations that come up in your body in the present moment," Quach says. "Slow everything down. Before you throw a fit create space inside yourself to see a more effective response."
Quach says that leaders in 3.0 make better decisions: They tap into their intuition and gain clarity about what matters. The most important result, however, is their capacity to feel and express compassion, which creates healthier relationships with employees.
She refers to a study of seminary students assigned to give talks about the Good Samaritan, scheduled to start at different times. On the way to the speech site, the subjects passed an actor slumped in a doorway, moaning. Those who were in a hurry were far less likely to stop and attend to the stranger. "When you are go, go, go, you are so focused on the reward you don't see people as human beings," Quach says. "If you take that moment and create space in your brain, then you see they are people. And you help."