How will you exercise your mind?

6 On-the-Job Brain Workouts for Leaders

I don’t think anyone would disagree: leaders who excel in their positions have brains that are highly efficient at handling complexities and stress. Beyond being born with high intelligence, however, they recognize the need for continually strengthening their brains.

In a November 2007 Harvard Business Review article, professors Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts describe the benefits of cognitive fitness for leaders:

The more cognitively fit you are, the better you will be able to make decisions, solve problems, and deal with stress and change. Cognitive fitness will allow you to be more open to new ideas and alternative perspectives. It will give you the capacity to change your behaviors and forecast their outcomes in order to realize your goals. You can become the kind of person your company values most. Perhaps more important, you can delay senescence for years.

Your cognitive fitness level is determined by your ability to reason, remember, learn, plan and adapt. The following strategies can help you maintain an engaged, creative brain:

1. Expand your experiences. There are two parts to this step: First, learn more about your area of expertise. Second, learn more about outside areas. The brain stores knowledge through exposure to experiences. The more emotional the experience, the more you remember and retain.

2. Learn through observing. “Mirror neurons,” activated when we observe someone performing an action, help us learn new tasks and behaviors. Athletes often acquire skills by watching teammates drill, score and fumble.

3. Read the signs. Mirror neurons can also pick up on facial expressions, gestures and signals. You develop empathy by learning how to read other people’s body language.

4. Learn through mentoring. Observing your mentors helps you acquire some of their knowledge and experience. When you value their expertise, your mirror neurons are highly sensitized and responsive. Conversely, you fortify your own learning when you teach others.

5. Use case studies. When you read a case study that describes real customers and their experiences, you activate your mirror neurons to raise your level of understanding. The human brain is social, finely tuned to seek opportunities to connect and understand.

6. Take advantage of direct experience. One of the most powerful ways to gain direct experience, while also flexing your cognitive muscles, is taking a “walkabout” (also known as “management by walking around”). Taking time to talk with staff is one of the smartest leadership practices and well worth the invested time. When you share experiences, you gain a more comprehensive understanding of what happens at other organizational levels.

I think all of these suggestions are valuable for learning how to expand your brain power and it can happen at the same time you’re handling normal tasks. It may be as simple as slowing down enough to ask, “In what new ways can I think about these things? What questions do I need to be asking?”

It’s so easy to rush through things in order to “get ‘er done.” In the work I do with my executive coaching clients, we encourage being more mindful.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you.

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