Many leaders take the time to strengthen their physical body. They exercise at the gym, take the stairs instead of the lift, or walk a few rounds of the building on a lunch break. Or perhaps they play golf, hike, or swim. But, how many leaders take time to work on their brain?

Physical signs of health are usually overt and easy to see. A well-rested person will be alert and ready to go, instead of sluggish, baggy-eyes, and yawning. Healthy food contributes to a healthy body, and while a ‘cheat’ very occasionally is alright, someone who usually chooses fruits and vegetables over high-fats and carbs will be healthier. A toned, lean physique may look healthy at a glance, but the mind underneath may not always be as robust.

The Cracks Will Start To Show

Leaders who value physical health may not have the same dedication toward brain health. This is not necessarily because of deliberate oversight, but rather because many leaders do not understand or acknowledge the importance of brain health.

A human cannot function on a few hours of sleep and coffee for very long. Even the most dedicated and most driven people will eventually fall under that kind of duress. Elon Musk, a billionaire entrepreneur, recently revealed his own struggles with stress and psychological highs and lows.1 When the people in charge push themselves so hard, others will try to keep up, which will ultimately result in failure.

Recognising great leadership means focusing on more than what is seen on the outside. The expression, “beauty is only skin deep” holds true for leadership because a poorly functioning mind will affect everything--emotional health, mental health, and eventually physical health.

When Good Leaders Lose Their Way

Climbing the corporate ladder is hard work. Somehow, it seems like everything should be “more, more”. More money, more bonuses, more perks, more for shareholders, more fame--all of these can be intoxicating. Instead of leading to make changes, the goals subtly start to shift.

When the brain isn’t healthy, this power shift can be even more consuming. The atmosphere becomes rife with stress and anxiety, with few opportunities for innovation and creativity. A poll of 800 managers and employees in various industries found that 38% of the respondents who were treated rudely lowered their quality of work, and 48% decreased the effort they put in at work.2

Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Avoid The Dark Side Of Leadership

Most leaders have the best intentions, but sometimes things go awry. Taking a step back to assess a situation is always important, especially if the environment indicates that conditions are unhealthy. Leaders should:

  • Take time for self-reflection. It is impossible to improve without self-reflection. We may think we are doing a wonderful job, but stopping to honestly judge yourself is the only way to continue to grow. Neuroscience has implicated two areas in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), the ventral and dorsal MPFC, that are important for reflective processing, highlighting the importance of a healthy brain.3
  • Be empathetic. For some, negative social interactions can have long-lasting detrimental efforts. A negative remark tends to sting much more than a positive comment shines. Brains affected by neurodegenerative diseases (NDGs) show significant changes in empathetic behaviour, suggesting that individuals must retain the ability to experience reward and inhibit emotional responses in order to be empathetic to others.4 The supposedly healthy lives we lead may instead result in brains that resemble those affected by NDGs.5
  • Take a break in nature--without work tagging along. Stress contributes to many health factors, including depression and heart disease. Relaxation is a vital way to reduce stress and improve health. A recent study examined comments on Twitter to see how people relax. A common theme was that nature is important for relaxation, consistent with the idea that being in nature can reduce stress.6
  • Show gratitude. Gratitude is a positive experience that can increase happiness. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers found that subjects had decreased heart rates during gratitude intervention, compared to increased heart rates during resentment intervention. The authors suggest that gratitude intervention has a positive effect on heart rate, also increasing mental health.7

To avoid falling into the dark side of leadership, leaders must value emotional and mental health as much as physical health. Even if there aren’t visible signs of impairment, an unhealthy brain will eventually catch up to even the most well-intentioned leader.

1. Clifford C. Elon Musk gets personal about his ‘terrible lows’ and ‘unrelenting stress’. CNBC. 2017. Available at:
2. Porath C, Pearson C. The Price of Incivility. Harvard Business Review. 2013;January-February. Available at:
3. Van der Meer L, Costafreda S, Aleman A, David AS. Self-reflection and the brain: A theoretical review and meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies with implication for schizophrenia. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 2010;34,935-946.
4. Shdo SM, Ranasinghe KG, Gola KA, Mielke CJ, Sukhavov PV, Miller BL, Rankin KP. Deconstructing empathy: Neuroanatomical dissociations between affect sharing and prosocial motivation using a patient lesion model. Neuropsychologia. 2018;116(Pt A), 126-135. Available at:
5. McLennan K. Building Leaders for the Imagination Age: The Case for the i4 Neuroleader Model.  About my Brain Institute. 2016;1. [White Paper].
6. Doan S, Ritchart A, Perry N, Chaparro JD, Conway M. How Do You #relax When You’re #stressed? A Content Analysis and Infodemiology Study of Stress-Related Tweets. Eysenbach G, ed. JMIR Public Health and Surveillance. 2017;3(2):e35. doi:10.2196/publichealth.5939.
7. Kyeong S, Kim J, Kim DJ, Kim HE, Kim J-J. Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling. Scientific Reports. 2017;7,5058. Available at: 

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