The neuroscience of leadership

Rather than letting your ideas and attention wander, it’s important to focus on the initiatives that are necessary to move your organization, career and personal life forward. Bob McCulloch, executive coach and strategic consultant, explains.

The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that your consciousness flows through: every idea, every thought and every decision. David Rock, a pioneer in neuroleadership, notes that if the amount of information we can hold in this region at one time is equivalent to a cubic foot, then the information we hold in the rest of the brain is equivalent to the Milky Way. Our brains are designed to use the prefrontal cortex sparingly. So what are the implications of this for leadership?


Imagine the prefrontal cortex as a stage. Ideas are like actors, wandering on and off the stage. Sometimes they may linger, disappear or bump into each other. These thoughts do not necessarily have anything to do with one another; they are just there.

Ideas are flowing through your mind all the time. Some people like to think of this as multitasking, but it’s not. It is scattered thinking: these disordered “actors”— thoughts, ideas and perceptions — do not automatically create a coherent performance.

If you are going to make headway and if you want to make a difference, you need a stage manager. Someone who says, “Okay, you can come on stage now. Face the audience, concentrate, deliver the lines and you’re off.” The stage manager is ordering and guiding those ideas so you can stay focused on what’s important in the moment.


Over the years, I have attempted the to-do list because that’s what people did. I would write down what I needed to do so I could get it done, but the probability of accomplishing everything on my to-do list was zero to nil. On any given day, I’d get 40 to 50, or if I’m lucky, maybe 60 per cent done and then have to transfer the remaining responsibilities to the next day’s list. After a few days, I’d begin to feel like Sisyphus. But what if I had a stage manager?

A to-do list is like those actors wandering across the stage. So I started a new type of list: a vision list. Instead of a “to-do” list, it’s a “to have done” list. Now I ask myself: what will I complete by the end of the day? I’m not concentrating on what I have to do to accomplish those end results. I am making realistic priorities and acting accordingly, letting other parts of my brain figure out the how. That way, I can give my prefrontal cortex a break and allow more room for possibility, flexibility and creativity.

This is important because the prefrontal cortex gets fatigued easily and we have a limited attention span. As busy professionals, most of us realistically have an hour or two of focused attention each day. Knowing this resource is finite, a “to have done” list helps focus my energy, prioritize tasks and figure out my capacity for the most important work at hand. I’m focusing on the end goal, not the start or the “how.” This simple difference results in me being able to achieve 90 to 95 per cent of my “to have done” list and handle any interruptions and emergencies as they arise.


The vision list is one example, though perhaps a small one, of strategic thinking. Rather than letting your ideas and attention wander, it’s important to focus on the initiatives that are necessary to move your organization, career and personal life forward. We need operational thinking to actually accomplish something, but it’s useful to pause sometimes re-evaluate strategy. Are you on track? Do you need to make some adjustments?

As David Rock concludes, “Once we understand that these difficulties are simply limitations inherent in the way our brains are wired, it’s easier to devise strategies to compensate for them.” By understanding the limitations of our prefrontal cortex and taking the right steps to manage it — whether that includes vision lists, minimizing distraction, time management or other techniques — we can become more effective and strategic leaders.

Bob McCulloch is a recognized authority providing strategic guidance and executive coaching for tomorrow’s top business leaders.

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