Morning Zen

Got grit? Four strategies for how system of care leaders can use their brain’s braking system to increase perseverance and personal resilience

December 28, 2013

Guest Morning Zen contributor and Network faithful Laurie Ellington of Zero Point Leadership TM continues our education on the relationship between neuroscience and leadership in systems of care. We are sharing her most recent paper on the topic in this Morning Zen post. Enjoy!

System of care leaders are people who are trying to influence positive change. How well this goes depends largely on the ability to perform under pressure and adapt successfully in the face of adversity- also known as resiliency. Effective leadership during systems change efforts requires durability, perseverance, and the capacity to resist the deleterious effects of stress within personal contexts and workplace environments. A passion and commitment to excellence is not sufficient, nor is a high IQ or talent.  In addition, ignoring physical, emotional, and mental limitations leads to fatigue, malaise, burnout, and pessimism. Navigating the complex challenges involved with change while having the stamina to create a desired future seems to rely heavily on having grit and self-control to persist in the face of uncertainty and turbulence. Angela Duckworth, math teacher-turned-psychologist at University of Pennsylvania, describes grit as passion and perseverance for long term goals and the ability to stick with the future to make it a reality. She also states that “part of what it means to be gritty is to be resilient in the face of failure or adversity.” Confronting disruptive change is inevitable. Being able to regulate emotions while steering through challenges related to disruptive change is where things get a little sticky. Leaders who have been able to do this are the ones who have historically achieved our most amazing accomplishments. 

Emotion regulation entails a considerable amount of personal self-control, and is arguably one of the most robust predictors of successful leadership. The capability to tap into what neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman refers to as ‘the brain’s braking system’ is what separates us from other lower primates and is also what allows human beings to invent and creatively hurdle over the most challenging obstacles. Our capacity to be gritty and dogged in spite of impulses that could derail us is very unique. This braking system in the brain that assists us in staying firm and determined to achieve a desired goal is called the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Located in the prefrontal cortex, it is heavily involved in our ability to control ourselves, including the ability to regulate and control our emotions.

For system of care leaders to demonstrate grit and resiliency while encountering life’s biggest challenges, they need to be able to turn on this system and use it for self-management. In our neuroLeader MasterClass™, we provide a variety of vehicles for helping system of care leaders understand their brains so that they can use their braking system to their advantage. 

Here are 4 powerful strategies we teach leaders that help them use their brain’s braking system to increase grit and overall levels of personal resilience.    

  1. Labeling– This technique involves putting negative feelings into words and is good for lower level threats that cause emotional arousal. Labeling turns on the brain’s braking system, setting the self-control process in motion and dampening the emotional response. In other words, the limbic system, the part of the brain that detects threats to our survival, is calmed down and thinking resources managed by the prefrontal cortex are freed up. The key to effective labeling is to not engage in a long conversation with yourself or anyone else about the details of the emotion, as this will only further activate the limbic system and increase the threat response in the brain. Labeling can be done silently or expressed out loud. People find that using something symbolic seems to be a bit more effective. For example, “I am feeling a little pressure right now.” Or, “I am experiencing some tension.”
  2. Reappraisal – This strategy harnesses our power to interpret things differently, or change the meaning of a situation. This is a good strategy to use when labeling alone is not sufficient enough to dampen the threat response. Studies illustrate that when we change the meaning of a situation, the threat response in our brain and autonomic nervous system arousal is significantly reduced, giving us the opportunity to activate the brain’s braking system and change the emotional response to a threatening situation. This allows us to get the most out of our prefrontal cortex and higher order thinking resources. Neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner at Columbia University conducted an experiment where participants were shown a picture of people crying outside of a church and then asked to perceive the same picture afterwards as a wedding ceremony, where people were shedding tears of joy for a newly married couple. As soon as the participants reappraised the scene as a wedding vs. a funeral, which changed the meaning of the event, activation in the limbic region of their brains was decreased and the prefrontal cortex came back online. 

    What situation would you like to give a different meaning to? How would this change your emotional response and future behavior?

    “If our emotional responses fundamentally flow out of interpretations, or appraisals, of the world, and we can change those appraisals, then we have to try to do so. And to not do so, at some level, is rather irresponsible.” ~ Kevin Ochsner

  3. Mindfulness– A strategy for stepping out of autopilot, mindfulness is state of active, open attention on the present that gives us the capacity to observe thoughts from a distance. As described by John Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Stress Reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. When anxiety levels are high and the threat response has been triggered, we miss incoming information and make more mistakes because we have over directed our attention inward. Peak performance in systems of care requires the ability to observe our brains and minds at work- to be aware of our awareness. Without this ability we do not have the capacity to turn on our braking system and regulate emotions. This is when panic and habitual responses move us out of the driver’s seat and take over. 

    Click here for easy mindfulness exercises that take less than a minute.

    Want to know how mindful you are? Click here for a mindfulness assessment that takes less than 10 minutes.

  4.  Biofeedback– In our brain-based leadership development programs, neuroLeaders-in-training use a self-monitoring biofeedback mobile technology called emWave2 developed by HeartMath® to help them change their reaction to stress and tone down the brain’s alarm system so that they can access the brain’s braking system instead.  This self-regulation tool measures heart rate variability (HRV) and levels of coherence, a state characterized by order and harmony between psychological and physiological processes.

Coherence can be scientifically measured and has been proven to have numerous mental, emotional and physical benefits, giving leaders more control during threatening situations. This increases access to thinking resources needed for navigating chaotic and unpredictable situations. Studies show that high levels of heart rate variability and states of coherence are associated with peak performance and the ability to achieve a state of flow.

Want to learn how to use this technology to increase your personal resilience?  Click here.

To learn more about neuroLeader programs, visit Zero Point Leadership™.

Duckworth, A. (2013, April), Angela Duckworth: The key to success? Grit [Video file].
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life.  New York: Hyperion Books.
Lieberman, M. D. (2009).  The brain’s braking system [and how to ‘use your words’ to tap into it].  NeuroLeadership Journal, 2, 9-14.
Ocshner, K. N., Ray, R. D., Cooper, J. C., Robertson, S., Chopra, J. D., Gabrieli, J. D., & Gross, J. J. (2004).  For better for worse: Neural systems supporting the cognitive down and up-regulation of negative emotion.  Neuroimage 23, 2, 483-499.

About Laurie Ellington
Laurie Ellington, MA, LPC, CPC, RCC is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Zero Point Leadership™. She believes that we can change the world by changing our thoughts and beliefs. As a NeuroLeadership Coach, Social Change Facilitator, and Inspirational Speaker, she works with people who want to take an unconventional approach to moving beyond the status quo in order to create remarkable change in their lives and organizations. Laurie combines research from neuroscience, modern physics, positive psychology, and systems thinking to help leaders, teams, and organizations utilize the power of self-awareness, presence, and insight to transform culture and mindfully improve human performance. She co-developed the Zero Point Results Model™, which is a comprehensive organizational and systems improvement framework that rests on a neuroscience and systems thinking platform.

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