CEOs and the Emotional Brain 0 comment

Dr. Lola Gershfeld, CEO, Level Five Executive

CEOs and the Emotional Brain 0 comment

One of the least talked about subjects in board governance is the human condition. When it comes down to it, all board members and CEOs are emotional beings who instinctually crave emotional connection. These connections are essential to overall board performance. How directors feel about each other directly impacts the efficacy of the board.

Understanding the brain is the first step to interpreting your own emotions and the emotions of your board of directors. The brain is our most complex organ and even through we’ve been studying it for years, we still have so much to learn about it. That being said, we do have a very good idea of how emotions and thoughts are connected.

If you look at the structure of the brain, you will see that the prefrontal cortex (responsible for thinking, planning and decision-making) is not connected to the emotional region of the brain. Instead, the emotional region has massive connections with the cerebral cortex (responsible for higher brain functioning). The cerebral cortex also controls the prefrontal cortex, therefore it is difficult for us to control our emotions, but it is very easy for our emotions to control our thoughts. Think of it like a one-way street where your emotions can drive your thoughts but your logical thought-process can’t drive your emotions.

Keeping this concept in mind, it is easier to understand things that we have all experienced. For example, once you are afraid or anxious, it is very hard to say, “I am not going to be afraid anymore.” At this point, fear or anxiety has taken over your brain and you can’t think your way out of it. This is problematic because emotions can tell us that we are afraid, but can’t give us the solutions other than our very basic instincts which tell us to find an emotional connection and safety. For our brain to stay calm and in control, we need to reestablish emotional connection with another person who can help us to feel safe and secure. These connections create what we call a “safe environment” where board members can feel confident in sharing their ideas and concerns. Once a safe environment is established, decisions can be made much more rationally.

Recent research has focused on emotional intelligence and leadership. A study led  by Daniel Goleman shows that groups with people who have strong emotional bonds had far better interactions and made far better decisions than groups with people who had weak emotional bonds. In other words, groups with a safe environment perform better than those without. This also indicates that groups are smarter than individuals when their members are able to effectively connect emotionally with one another.

When a group lacks this type of secure connection, the quality of its decisions and the speed at which they are made suffer. So when you are faced with a difficult or stressful decision in the boardroom, it is vital for directors to connect emotionally, stay calm and move towards resolution.

Recently we have seen the consequence of a leader without understanding of the emotional brain. Simon Newman recently resigned as the President of Catholic college, Mount St. Mary’s. His actions received national attention after he compared struggling students to bunnies that needed to be killed. These comments as well as other actions he took that were not in line with the school’s core values sent the board and the school into emotional distress.

The board even took steps to apologize to staff for the “breakdown in compassionate communication”. After Newman resigned, one member expressed “I think everyone’s top priority is moving forward with healing, and with rebuilding trust.” The key here is “rebuilding trust” – trust is so important to a safe environment. It is the foundation which we build relationships on. The board was recognizing that they had lost trust and are now looking to make a major change to regain that trust and begin developing a safe environment.

Clearly Newman was not emotionally conscious of his board or company in his actions. Had he established stronger emotional connections with his board of directors he would likely have made statements that were more in line with the school’s goals and mission.

Effective CEOs and directors understand the consequence of our brain’s cognition and emotional disconnect. Sometimes we express emotions such as anger when less volatile expression could be in our best interest, or we make decisions that may lack an appreciation for emotional consequence for ourselves and others. When people are under stress, these kinds of disconnections between emotions and thoughts should be expected and countered with and emotionally safe environment.

As we become more aware of the human condition in the boardroom, we are better able to combat the effects of the emotional brain. Creating a safe environment for all directors and the CEO to thrive is the key to controlling stress and improving performance.


Zeelenberg, M., Nelissen, R., Breugelmans, S., & Pieters, R. (2008). On Emotion Specificity in Decision Making: Why Feeling is for Doing, Tilberg University

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. & McKee, A. (2002). Primal Leadership, Boston, MA: HBS.

[Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at]

About the Author

Dr. Lola Gershfeld, PsyD, Founder and CEO of Level Five Executive, has developed protocols that transform boards into effective and engaged teams. With three decades of building companies and serving on boards, Dr. Gershfeld has gathered and developed the most effective techniques and tools for creating positive interactions among board members, executive teams, and investors. Her fresh perspective has led her to an emotional-focused approach where she creates safe environments for the board to increase performance. Her authored works include the Effective Board Dynamics Guide, Be Cards, and several self-assessments and surveys which are used to improve board dynamics. Her articles have been published in OC Lawyer and NACD Directors Magazines.