Leaders who work with me know that I am forever advocating for the practice of Mindfulness, yes, sometimes ad nauseum. We’ve known for some time that great leaders require higher levels of emotional intelligence as they pursue career advancement. What I have learned over 15 years of working with leaders is that emotional intelligence remains a powerful component of good leadership but the lack of capacity, in terms of brain bandwidth and plain old free time on the calendar, are currently the most chronic pain points for executives in high functioning business environments. There is a lot of accumulating evidence that is becoming a focal area for high-achieving leaders. I see Mindfulness and one of the most capacity enhancing tools we have at our disposal but there are many others, I must admit.

There are thousands of books about the brain’s function, but only a handful focus on how leaders can harness its powers in a business world that’s increasingly complex.

We now know a lot more about how the brain functions, and that we can keep it healthy and even strengthen it in the face of stress and crises. But how exactly do leaders become more mentally fit on-the-job?

It turns out that a lot of what we previously thought about the brain isn’t true. We’ve discovered, for example, that the brain continues to grow well into our later years through a process called “neuroplasticity.” It accommodates learning by producing new neurons, the cells that help transfer information.

For busy executives, learning to play a musical instrument or doing challenging puzzles may not be practical. But you can incorporate some basic strategies into your existing responsibilities and tasks to improve your cognitive fitness.

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. (Learn more about reading facial expressions from the revered Dr. Ekman) . Priceless!
  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?” (Okay, can’t help myself, Mindfulness, will also help here).  Your thoughts?