The science of mindset mastery for leaders


Successful leaders know that we can only control three things in our lives: our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. If we can adopt these, we can lead our organizations and our lives to our own vision for success.

This vision may be different for successful leaders: some want to grow their company into a big company, while others want to stay small and maintain a family atmosphere in their company. Regardless of how you view success, achieving it requires investing in understanding how your mind works. Then you need to align your patterns of thinking, feeling, and the behaviors that result, to assess reality clearly, make the wisest decisions, and achieve your goals.

How does our mind work? Intuitively, our mind feels like a cohesive whole. We see ourselves as conscious and rational thinkers. But research in cognitive science shows that the intentional part of our mind is actually like a little rider on a giant elephant of emotions and intuitions.

Roughly speaking, we have two systems of thought. Daniel Kahneman, who received the Nobel Prize for his research on behavioral economics, calls them systems 1 and 2. I think autopilot system and intentional system describe these systems more clearly.

The autopilot system corresponds to our emotions and intuitions. Its cognitive processes take place primarily in the amygdala and other parts of the brain that evolved early in our evolution. This system controls our daily habits, helps us make quick decisions, and immediately responds to dangerous life-or-death situations, such as saber-toothed tigers, through the freeze, fight, or flight stress response. While the fight-or-flight response helped our survival in the past, it doesn’t sit well with modern life.

We have many small stresses in our work that are not life threatening, but the autopilot system treats them like saber-toothed tigers. This creates an unnecessarily stressful everyday life that undermines our mental and physical well-being. Furthermore, the quick judgments that come from intuitions and emotions usually feel true because they are quick and powerful, but they often mislead us in systematic and predictable ways.

For example, we make mistakes when we rely on our autopilot system. The autopilot system causes us to make overly optimistic plans and ignore weaknesses and threats in our business and career. It leads us to make mistakes in negotiating with others, in mergers and acquisitions, and in evaluating company performance. True leaders learn not to simply rely on gut instinct to troubleshoot autopilot systems.

In contrast, the intentional system reflects our rational thinking and focuses on the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that has evolved more recently. According to recent research, it evolved as humans began to live within larger social groups. This thought system helps us manage more complex mental activities. This includes dealing with individual and group relationships, logical thinking, probabilistic thinking and learning new information and patterns of thought and behavior. Note that these activities are exactly the kind of things required for leadership success.

While the automatic system requires no conscious effort to operate, the intentional system requires conscious effort to turn on and is mentally tiring. Fortunately, with enough motivation and appropriate training, the intentional system can kick in in situations where the autopilot system is prone to errors, especially costly ones.

The autopilot system is like an elephant. It is by far the more powerful and predominant of the two systems. Our emotions can often overwhelm our rational thinking.

In addition, our intuitions and habits determine most of our lives, which we spend in autopilot mode. And that’s not bad at all – it would be mentally exhausting to consciously reflect on our every action and decision.

The intentional system is like the elephant rider. It can consciously guide the elephant in a direction consistent with our actual goals. It can help you fix the systematic and predictable mistakes we make because of the way our brains are wired, what scholars call cognitive biases. There are over 100 cognitive biases, and researchers in behavioral economics and cognitive neuroscience are finding more all the time. We make these mistakes not only at work, but also in other areas of life, for example when shopping, as a series of studies by a shopping comparison portal has shown.

Fortunately, recent research in these areas shows how you can employ pragmatic strategies to identify and correct these dangerous judgment errors. The elephant part of the brain — most prone to cognitive distortions — is huge and unwieldy, slow to rotate and change, and charge toward threats.

But we can train the elephant. Your rider can be an elephant whisperer. Over time, you can use the intentional system to change your automatic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving and achieve true success!

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