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Increasing Mental Clarity

Clarity is the third leadership attribute highlighted by Mark Carney in his speech, Reflections on Leadership in a Disruptive Age, delivered to future global leaders at Regent’s University, London on 19 February 2018. In previous blogs we explored the bio-chemistry of Ambition and Purpose .

What leader, no matter how cool headed, wouldn’t want to improve their mental clarity? The bio-chemistry of clarity is essential to effective leadership because how well we manage our physiology has a direct, powerful, immediate and long term effect on our clarity of thought. Physical Intelligence techniques directly influence clarity in three key ways:

  • Increasing cognitive coherence

  • Handling mental and emotional pressure

  • Letting go quickly

Increasing Cognitive Coherence: Physical, mental and emotional stress are the enemies of coherence because stress can disturb our clarity of thought and take a toll on our nervous system. Yet, as Carney says, ‘Part of a leader’s job is to absorb the stress so the rest of the organisation can focus’. Given that, what can a leader do? We recommend paced breathing technique because it enables us to more easily manage stress, reducing its impact on cognitive coherence and, over time, building a more stable, robust nervous system. Here’s how it works… When the negative aspects of pressure (doubt, delayed decision making, low mood, resenting the daily grind, fatigue) take hold, the internal environment of our bodies, brains and minds go into physiological ‘chaos’ rather than ‘coherence’. When our heart rate (which indicates our level of stress) and our thought patterns (which indicate our cognitive power) negatively affect one another, our thoughts become less coherent. By consciously and rigorously incorporating paced breathing into their daily routine, leaders (or anyone, for that matter) can boost their levels of acetylcholine (renewal, recovery, learning and memory) and DHEA (vitality, longevity, endurance, whole system function), enhancing cognitive function. We strongly recommend that you use paced breathing technique for 10 minutes a day, every day. For example, every morning on waking, as soon as your alarm goes off, begin paced breathing as a matter of habit.

Paced Breathing Technique is exactly what its title suggests – it is breathing in and out whilst silently, internally counting the length of your breaths – then establishing a regular, repetitive ratio. Mine is usually 4 counts in, 4 counts out, but yours may be 3:5 or 5:4. Feel free to discover the count that suits you. In addition to first thing in the morning, train journeys, red traffic lights, and slow traffic are good times to practice paced breathing. This, well researched technique is fundamental to ensuring cognitive coherence. Carney says ‘Clarity starts with the clarity of mind and sound judgment that arise from emotional awareness and control’. Paced breathing technique, practiced daily, will set you up to do this.

Handling Mental and Emotional Pressure: In order to be resilient in the face of mental and emotional pressure, leaders must be physically fit. The physiological system we use for recovery from mental and emotional pressure is exactly the same system used to recover from physical exertion – the parasympathetic nervous system. If this system is sluggish, then our mental and emotional systems will be as well. The answer is HIIT at home (High Intensity Interval Training). If you are leading the organisation or team through a particularly disruptive period or in the midst of challenge, in order to handle the associated pressure, it is critical that you get your heart rate up and down for at least ten minutes at least three times a day. This can be integrated into everyday life as simply and informally as walking fast, running, or climbing stairs or with a more formal home/gym-based high intensity fitness routine lasting a minimum of 10 minutes: 30 seconds to warm up, 2 minutes of aerobic activity (push ups, star jumps, fast jogging on the spot) and 1 minute recovery – x 3, with 30 seconds to warm down. Make this physically intelligent practice a habit and you will be much better equipped to handle mental and emotional pressure.

Letting Go Quickly: Reflect, Reboot Optimism, Move Forward.

In order to maintain a cool head under pressure, empower others, and as Carney says ‘absorb the stress so the rest of the organisation can focus,’ leaders need to be able to process frustration or disappointment quickly. The Letting Go process can help. Follow this process…

Reflect – Face up to whatever event you need to move past. (Facing up to problems head on requires the testosterone and serotonin levels we discussed in the blog on ambition.) Use your posture here to increase your levels of those chemicals whilst reviewing concerning facts, problems, and setbacks.

Reboot optimism – As leaders work to achieve goals and objectives, they invariably encounter challenges, many of which, if viewed differently, are actually opportunities. As mentioned in the Carney quote from Kouznes J, and Posner B, (2010), “The engineer of America’s Great Society, John Gardner, struck this delicate balance when he said: “What we have before us are some breath-taking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.”

Personal and organisational realism and optimism require reducing the threat of uncertainty (reducing cortisol levels, the stress hormone), and rebooting serotonin (well-being and self belief) levels as well as using effective communication to renew personal and corporate belief in the future whilst inspiring others to believe too.

Move forward – Carney cites Tim Geithner’s refrain. “Plan beats no plan”, and says “a plan provides the necessary clarity of mind by focusing efforts and uniting people around a common goal”.

By creating a plan, a good leader ensures dopamine levels in the organisation are as high as possible. Clear steps communicated well, repeated throughout the business, backed up by a compelling narrative will reboost dopamine levels (focus and feelings of potential reward) and enable people to take positive action.

Next week, we will conclude our Leadership series by addressing the Physical Intelligence behind Humility. In the meantime, for more information on the role of Physical Intelligence in effective leadership, please contact us through

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