Brain Science & Leadership

Yesterday, I wrote that I’d like to have a deeper knowledge of brain science so IThe Brain by Katharine Dowson (2005) can be more like Leonardo da Vinci.  Or something like that.

As I write this from St. Louis  – where I’m diving deeply into transitional ministry education – it’s interesting how often brain science is mentioned.

Sisters and brothers, did you know that:

  • Our brains work in an “open loop system” which means that if I sense that you might threaten me, my prefrontal cortex will semi-shut down?  In other words, when we feel safe, our brains open up to be more creative.  (Thank you Rabbi S.M.)  This means it’s hard to be creative in a congregation of people who don’t trust each other.
  • Research suggests that negative emotions are like Velcro and positive emotions are like Teflon?  In other words, constructive criticism sticks to us and compliments slide off us faster than a fried egg glides off a polytetrafluoroethylene skillet .  (Thank you Ivey Business Journal.) This means it’s hard to forget that parishioner’s comment about your “disappointing sermon.”  But we easily forget the parishioner’s comment about how much the funeral homily meant to them.


I’m telling you: this stuff is fascinating.

Positive emotions bring out the best in people and so consider what it does to someone’s brain when he/she lives in constant fear, deprivation, and anxiety.  Or – in Church World – when parishioners believe that their heritage is being taken away or their spiritual practices are being challenged or their sacred assumptions are being crushed.

We. Need. More. Emotionally. Intelligent. Leaders.  

Emotional intelligence is a better predictor of pastoral success than straight As on a seminary transcript.  Emotionally intelligent people better manage their stress, diffuse anxiety, and promote a climate of optimism and adaptability which makes people feel more innovative.  It’s science, people.

Note:  while I’m learning this week, I covet your suggestions for further brain science and leadership studies.  (Thanks.)

Image source.

7 responses to “Brain Science & Leadership

  1. You might be interested in reading “Brain Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry” by Charles Stone. It’s an exploration of neuroscience research applied to leadership skills.


  2. Hi Jan, I always enjoy your blog posts because I think you and I have very similar jobs and are seeing very similar things in the church. I feel a camaraderie as I read your observations and exhortations. Your theological and spiritual insights are an encouragement to me as I serve many struggling, stuck, dying, and revitalizing churches. Yours is one of 2 blogs I subscribe to. You may enjoy the other one if you don’t know about it. Charles Stone writes about brain science as it relates to leadership, particularly church leadership. Here’s the site: Keep up the good work, and thanks for the reminder today about emotional intelligence and trust in leadership.


  3. Several years ago was introduced to the book “Brain Rules”
    Forget the author but there is a website

    Found out about the book from Rodger Nishioka. He has done a lot of work on integrating brain research into educational ministry.


  4. Another area to explore is how contemplative practices actually re-wire the brain, create space in the brain, and change the brain’s capacity for goodness and compassion. The practices of Centering Prayer and meditation in their various forms are crucial.

    It is the next stage of development for the “Church” in my estimation. People like Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating, Br. David Steindl-Rast are a few who are teaching contemplative practices. Dr. Andrew Dreicter has also done work in this area.


  5. So many good resources. Thank you.


  6. Pingback: From Intelligence to Emotional Intelligence to Adaptability Intelligence | A Church for Starving Artists

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