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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Why Neuroscience Matters to Executives

Finally, leaders must find ways to keep people’s attention focused on the change. It’s not enough to introduce a vision once and expect others to internalize it. Keeping a group of people focused on a major change requires bringing the change into their consciousness on a regular basis — not once a month or once a week, but every day, so that eventually the new vision becomes a filter through which every decision is made. Constant attention focused on a specific mental experience keeps relevant circuitry in the brain open and alive, which, over time, leads to physical changes in the brain’s structure. In other words, people who focus on a specific task can literally teach themselves to think differently over time.

You emphasize the importance of focusing attention. What role can meditation play?
Regular sustained attention — which is what meditation is, after all — can change one’s neural circuitry. Meditation helps the brain overcome the urge to automatically respond to external events; that kind of focus is a very important skill. Great leaders have the capacity to consider the context surrounding external events before reacting to them. Responding thoughtfully to external events, rather than saying what first comes to mind, prevents leaders from responding in a way they may later regret. This ability to remain cool and rational under pressure is what the great economist Adam Smith called the “impartial spectator” perspective. It’s also known as self-awareness. Meditation is one way to build this impartial spectator, but it can also be developed in everyday life, for example, by paying attention to the relationship between how we feel and what we do.

Another important idea is the concept of a quiet mind. A noisy mind can develop when the brain is overstimulated. Emotions such as fear or anxiety can also contribute to the noise by increasing stress levels. Too much stress arouses the amygdala, a structure that is closely connected to the brain’s fear circuitry. We all know the feeling of being upset by something at work, then not being able to concentrate for the remainder of the day. In short, a person’s capacity to use his or her prefrontal cortex, also known as the working memory, can be impaired under conditions of peak stress, fear, or anxiety. This can result in a decreased ability to make rational comparisons among competing objectives.

Using one’s impartial spectator perspective seems to enhance the functioning of the prefrontal cortex — the area that processes new information and is most involved in rational, clear thought — and allows it to inhibit the amygdala and any associated anxiety. In other words, utilizing the impartial spectator perspective can help quiet the brain. This, in turn, allows the brain to be more efficient at recognizing and processing external events.

Author Profiles:

David Rock ([email protected]) is the author of Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work (Collins, 2006) and Personal Best: Step by Step Coaching for Creating the Life You Want (Simon and Schuster, 2001). He is the founder of Results Coaching Systems.
Jeffrey Schwartz ([email protected]) is a research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. His books include The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (with Sharon Begley, Regan Books, 2002) and the bestseller Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior (Regan Books, 1997). In May, David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz will host the inaugural NeuroLeadership Summit, a three-day conference to be held in collaboration with the international business school CIMBA. 
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  1. John J. Ratey, A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain (Vintage, 2002): Readable summary of current thinking about the biology of thought, change, and learning. Click here.
  2. David Rock, Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work (Collins, 2006): One of this article’s authors on the essentials of coaching. Click here. 
  3. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” s+b, Summer 2006: Advances in brain research can help organizations successfully adapt to change. Click here. 
  4. Jeffrey Schwartz, Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior (Regan Books, 1997): OCD function and cure illuminate many leadership issues. Click here. 
  5. Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (Regan Books, 2002): Rewiring connections, and the underlying neuroscience. Click here.
  6. The First Global NeuroLeadership Summit Web site: Information about the inaugural conference led by the authors of this article, to be held May 14–16, 2007, in Asolo, Italy. Click here.
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