Why is the Aging Brain a Good Thing for Leaders?

 …and the Answer May Not Be What You Think

By Kathy Poehnert

You might be thinking: “that’s easy…because in order to be an effective leader you generally have to have a certain number of years of experience.” While this MAY be true, there certainly are exceptions (think Mark Zuckerberg, Malala Yousafzai, Justin Trudeau).   More importantly, or certainly of equal importance is that our brains are designed to have a very different focus and function as we age and it is precisely this that accounts for the fact that most effective leaders are older.

I was recently so relieved to learn that my forgetfulness around where I left my car keys, or the name of the person I just met at an event is actually because my brain is not as concerned with short-term memory as it once was; it is now much happier focusing on bigger things.

Long held beliefs have told us that the brain declines with age, and that the older brain does not function as well as the younger brain……. while certainly there are some natural deficiencies that occur in aging, new research in brain plasticity is showing us some really interesting and very re-assuring facts about the aging brain.

Evidently, when we are in the second half of our lives, the brain is more concerned with seeing the “big picture” and putting together all the information and experiences we have been gathering in our lives in a way that increases wisdom, and the ability to use both hemispheres of the brain, which is not necessarily true in the younger brain. This reduces a rush to judgement and increases good decision-making skills, and impulse control.

The mature brain finds it easier to get at the heart or essence of the matter rather than getting stuck in the particulars, which is what very effective leaders are able to do masterfully.

We know also that as we age, most of us tend to become a bit calmer and less neurotic; we are able to see the bigger perspective and not “sweat the small stuff.” Part of this is due to the fact that we are more likely to seek out positive information than negative. This “positivity effect”  allows older leaders to have more emotional stability and positive affect than their younger counterparts, and may also allow for greater insight and self- awareness, important characteristics in effective leadership.

Of course, we need to create certain habits as we age to make sure our brains function well, such as the usual:

  • Eating well
  • Sleeping well
  • Exercising
  • But of equal importance are the following:
  • Being socially and intellectually active
  • Embracing a growth mindset
  • Allowing the brain to seek out novelty
  • Placing yourself out of your comfort zone on a regular basis (not in your panic zone!)
  • Contributing to your “tribe” in meaningful ways
  • Being optimistic: focusing on the positive in yourself and others
  • Teaching others: teaching reinforces old brain connections, and strengthens new ones

Probably the most important thing you can do to maintain and increase your brain’s wisdom and functionality is to check your outdated and ill-advised beliefs about the brain’s age decline at the door!

For more on the neuro-plasticity of the brain and how to take advantage of it, contact Kathy for a consultation.