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Reshaping the Brain: How Neuroplasticity Can Bolster Your Organization’s Leaders

6 min read

Scientists tell us that the brain typically reaches full maturity and development around our mid-to-late 20s. This notion might lead us to believe that once we reach that stage of life, we essentially have to work with what we’ve got. However, advances in neuroscience have revealed that our brain isn’t in a fixed state. It’s malleable and changeable, with the ability to adapt to our environment, our life experiences, and even our daily thoughts.  

This concept, known as neuroplasticity, can transform how we approach our personal and professional lives, with significant implications for organizational leaders. As a coach who uses neuroplasticity principles as part of my work in helping leaders develop their emotional intelligence, I’ve helped numerous clients reshape their thinking, eliminate negative thought patterns, and respond to difficult situations more productively. 

Neuroplasticity in a VUCA World  

We’re living in volatile and uncertain times, which is fueling high rates of anxiety. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that in the first year of the pandemic, the incidence of anxiety and depression increased by 25 percent. Anxiety is now the most common mental illness among adults, affecting an estimated 40 million Americans. And the repercussions are reverberating across the workplace, as more employees struggle with mental health issues that impact them on the job. 

Leading in a VUCA world is challenging enough. But when our brains sabotage us—taking us down unproductive paths and allowing emotions to dictate how we respond—the obstacles become more difficult to overcome. Yet, how we think directly impacts what we do as leaders. Thought and action are inextricably tied.  

Making matters more challenging is the fact that our thought patterns are affected by the sum total of our life experiences. By the time we are adults, well-entrenched in our careers and potentially serving in leadership roles, a lot of stimuli have combined to affect how and what we think. Hopefully, some experiences have helped us develop positive, productive thought patterns; but other experiences have likely contributed to negative, unproductive ways of thinking. 

That realization led me to develop my coaching skills several years ago, with the goal of applying neuroplasticity principles to help my clients take responsibility for how they think and respond (rather than react) to emotional trigger situations in leadership roles. One experience in particular stands out as a strong example of the value of reshaping our thoughts and the significant impact it can have on how we operate.      

One of my clients had founded and served as CEO of a thriving business. With the help of his private equity backers, he and his team have grown the company significantly. They were closing in on the day when their investors would sell the business, transforming the founder’s life. After investing many years and a great deal of money, he was ready to reap the rewards. 

Then, the financial crisis caused the company’s primary customer base (homebuilders) to retreat. Within months, the market for business services dried up. The financial backers sold the company at a fraction of what it was worth at its peak just a short time before. The founder’s payday never came. And he was faced with the reality of starting over. 

The Power of Retraining the Brain 

This client is certainly not the first person to experience a significant professional setback. It happens all the time, often for reasons outside of our control. However, it is the kind of experience that can leave an indelible mark, shaking one’s confidence and encouraging feelings of insecurity. If a person’s previous life experiences lay a foundation for emotional security and confidence, it can be a little easier to overcome acute situations like these. But, if those life experiences do not prepare the individual well, it can be much more difficult to triumph over adversity.  

After the dust settled on the sale of his company, my client noticed he was responding to triggers in unproductive ways, both personally and professionally. He understood, on an intellectual level, that he needed to develop positive thinking patterns that encouraged a growth mindset. But in the heat of the moment, it was easy for a situation to get the best of him, causing him to react emotionally rather than respond productively. 

That is when he reached out for help in getting his thought patterns back on track. And that’s when I first teamed up with him in applying neuroscience principles to help him learn new, more productive ways of thinking. This coaching approach centered on helping my client take responsibility for his thoughts, recognizing that he had the power to retrain his brain and develop new brain pathways.   

The work was difficult, but the rewards were great: In a matter of a few months, this executive found he could respond to difficult situations thoughtfully and intentionally, using a better construct. He gained greater self-awareness, began leveraging the power of reflection, learned how to avoid emotional triggers, and took better control of his thoughts. It’s not overstating it to say that he found the experience life changing.  

Putting Neuroplasticity to Work to Improve Your Leadership 

My experience coaching senior-level executives has made me a firm believer that neuroplasticity principles can help organizational leaders overcome unproductive thought patterns—whether they’re new or well-entrenched—and thrive in volatile and uncertain times.  

Many organizations tout the benefits of lifelong learning, but often they fail to leverage approaches that can retrain the brain to engage in new ways of thinking. Yet, some of the regions of the brain that most impact our thinking as leaders can be retrained, including the prefrontal cortex (which impacts decision-making and problem-solving) and the amygdala (which is involved in processing emotions). 

Leading a functional area, business unit, or entire organization is inherently anxiety-ridden. Add to that the fact that every leader brings to the role the sum total of their life experiences—some positive, others not—and the challenges become more formidable. Tapping into the concept of neuroplasticity and taking proactive steps to retrain the brain can pay significant dividends for organizational leaders.  

The bottom line is that we can change our brain by retraining it to develop new, more productive thought patterns. By putting neuroplasticity principles to work with the help of a skilled coach, leaders can learn how to respond to an uncertain, volatile, and ambiguous world more effectively. 


The Leadership Advisory Practice at Odgers Berndtson helps organizations discover and develop leaders, strengthen value-creating teams, and prepare for what’s next. Learn how our highly experienced assessors and coaches can help you and your team make a positive impact on your organization and those around you.  

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