Got grit? 4 strategies to help leaders keep cool under pressure

Thought Leadership on The Neuroscience Of Leadership presented by Zero Point Leadership.

Leaders are people who are trying to influence change. How well this goes depends largely on their ability to perform under pressure and adapt successfully in the face of adversity. Effective leadership requires durability, perseverance, and the capacity to resist the negative impacts of stress within both personal contexts and workplace environments. Having a passion and commitment to excellence alone 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.”1 Confronting change is inevitable.

Being able to regulate emotions while steering through challenges related to the discomfort associated with change is where things get a little sticky. Leaders who have been able to do this are the ones who have historically achieved the most amazing accomplishments. Emotion regulation requires a considerable amount of 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.2

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 manage our emotions.

For leaders to demonstrate grit and resiliency while encountering life’s biggest challenges, they need to be able to turn on the brain’s braking system and use it for self-management. Research reveals a variety of vehicles for helping leaders understand their brains so that they can use their braking system to their advantage.

4 powerful strategies that increase grit and leadership 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 in our environment) 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 situation causing the emotional response, 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. Some people may find that using something symbolic, versus naming the emotion, seems to be a bit more effective. For example, “I am feeling a little pressure right now.” Or, “I am experiencing some tension.” Again, the key here is not to stay in the drama of the emotion. We are just naming it to tame it and then moving on.

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. This allows us to get the most out of our prefrontal cortex and higher order thinking resources. Kevin Ochsner, a neuroscientist 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 emotional center in their brains was decreased and the prefrontal cortex came back online.3

  • “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
  • It turns out reappraisal is one of the most effective tools for building emotional intelligence necessary for maintaining personal control and composure in high pressure situations.

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.4 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 in some way. Peak performance 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.

4. Coherence Training: From a scientific perspective, coherence is used to describe when separate entities or systems function harmoniously and in sync with each other. You see this in nature when a flock of birds or a school of fish move as if they are one organism. From a physiological perspective, coherence is used to describe a state in which the immune, hormonal, and nervous systems work in coordination to create an optimal state of performance. Experts in optimal performance and stress resilience, the Institute of HeartMath describe coherence as a state where the heart, mind and emotions are in balance and working in harmony with each other. This results in greater mental and emotional flexibility in any given circumstance. A major source of stress for leaders is not having their thoughts and emotions in sync and aligned, resulting in a lack of composure and ability to respond adaptively when faced with challenge.

Sustained coherence builds your resilience capacity and is a regenerative state that can quickly recharge your inner battery and bring more stability to your system. 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. This may be why elite athletes, military personnel, first responders, healthcare organizations, and Fortune 500 company leaders learn coherence building techniques to perform at their best.

To learn more about how to implement these tools in your workplace so that you can keep under pressure, contact Zero Point Leadership today.

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  • Duckworth, A. (2013, April), Angela Duckworth: The key to success? Grit [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit.html
  • Lieberman, M. D. (2009). The brain’s braking system [and how to ‘use your words’ to tap into it]. NeuroLeadership Journal, 2, 9-14.
  • Ochsner, 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.
  • Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditationin everyday life. New York: Hyperion Books.