• November 2013

Improving Leadership Through the Brain-to-Belly Nerve

You’ve heard the expressions: “He lost his nerve.” “He doesn’t have the stomach for it.” “No guts.”

“As it turns out, those expressions are anatomically accurate,” says Dr. Stephen Josephs. “The nerve that you lose when you’re afraid is the vagus nerve, which runs from the belly to the brain. It transmits messages about whether the world is a safe or dangerous place. What we now know about the functioning of this nerve has direct applications for making leaders more effective and all of us happier and more courageous.”

Dr. Josephs, author of the new book, Dragons at Work, teaches executives how to reliably create states of optimal performance by achieving control of the vagus nerve. When making decisions about resources, leading teams, or talking with the board of directors, courage and poise in the face of rapidly changing business environments are essential for a leader.

“Rather than losing your nerve, you can strengthen it. Courage is a skill you can learn and a capacity you can systematically build. The vagus nerve has been linked to everything from digestion issues to stress and depression,” he says. “A benefit of inner-body balance includes the projection of true poise; authentic confidence from a leader is what can create a business culture that breeds financial success because employees and clients trust the person in charge to make important decisions from a stable perspective.”

Using specific techniques from martial arts, meditation, and other mind-body disciplines, Dr. Josephs guides executives to build resourcefulness and courage as a habitual response to challenge.

He offers tips for business executives to promote a healthy, vagus-nerve-friendly environment:

  • When angry or afraid, take a high-quality breath: People might tell an agitated person to “take a breath,” but it’s the quality of the breath that makes all the difference. Someone who has practiced breathing has wired in an automatic relaxation response—one breath immediately begins to spread calm. To practice, try this when you’re not under stress: As you inhale, relax your belly and the muscles of your torso, and soften your muscles on the inhale. On the exhale become still. Widen your peripheral vision—take in more of the room, and rest in a more wide-open awareness. At this point, your vagus nerve will be sending you messages that the world is a safe place and your ability to respond intelligently will be greatly enhanced.
  • Move forward with a relaxed vagus nerve. Now, in a calmer, more resourceful, and masterful state, you can apply a saner perspective to a variety of tasks: connect with employees, complete the agenda, let good ideas emerge from employees. With less pressure from management, employees will be able to affirm their own competencies. Acknowledge what’s already working well by giving credit to individuals and teams. Enjoy your work, knowing that whatever emerges, you can handle it.
  • Get over thyself—lighten up: See how much you can accomplish with the least amount of force. And drop self-importance. Remember, unless you’re Donald Trump or Miss Piggy and self-aggrandizement is part of your brand identity, it’s bad for business. It introduces unnecessary noise into the system and distorts communication. When you drop the veil of self-importance, you’ll hear critical comments and bad news faster, because people will trust that you can handle it. And knowing what’s really going on will give you a chance to make things right before small problems get big.

About Stephen Josephs, EdD

With more than 30 years of experience as an executive coach and consultant, Dr. Stephen Josephs, helps leaders build vitality and focus to make their companies profitable—and great places to work.

His doctorate at the University of Massachusetts focused on Aesthetics in Education: how to teach anything through art, music, drama, and movement. Dr. Josephs is particularly interested in the intersection of business performance, psychology, and mind-body disciplines.

His new novel, “Dragons at Work,” tells the story of a tightly wound executive—a fictionalized case study of coaching that produces fundamental changes in a leader. Dr. Josephs has also co-authored, “Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery in Anticipating and Initiating Change” (Jossey-Bass, 2006), with Bill Joiner, which shows how certain stages of psychological development affect leadership.

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