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A Conversation with David Rock on Social Connections as a Part of a Healthy Diet (Part 3)

December 2, 2011
The US government recently reinvented the food pyramid and introduced the Healthy Food Plate. Have you heard of what is called the Healthy Mind Platter? According to researcher David Rock, diet might actually not be as important as other functions when it comes to longevity–and to your success as a leader. This is part 3 of a 4 part series from the Q&A session with author David Rock which followed his recent Thought Leader Series broadcast on Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long on October 3, 2011.

Rich Rosier for Linkage: From all of the research you have done and all of the articles that you have read about others’ research, what are some of the big lessons you have taken away that help leaders?

David Rock: Leaders have been obviously my particular area of study.  We have published over 30 papers now, each one summarizing anywhere from 50 to 100s of studies in the neuroleadership journals.  So there is a lot going on that we are discovering.  But I think that there are a couple of things that are helpful to understand.  Any of you out there involved in leadership development or any kind of change management, I have excellent news for you.  You are going to have a job for a long time.  And the reason for that is that being a leader effectively reduces your capacity to do the very work that leaders need to do.  So let me try to parse that apart a bit.

As you become more senior and you go from sort of managing yourself, to managing others, to managing managers, to managing a function–as you go up, the need for your technical skills drops, we know that.  The need for your human skills goes up.  So that human skills kind of stuff, that soft skills stuff, is literally the circuitry for understanding yourself and understanding others, it is called the self and social circuitry involved in the medial pre-frontal cortex here and some other regions.  It is a circuitry for quite subtle signals involving intentions and all sorts of stuff.

Basically, the way you become a leader in a lot organizations is you do not use this circuit; you actually use more the planning and strategizing and kind of thinking ahead regions, more the goal-focused stuff.  So most leaders have been high performers, they have been very goal-focused.  So when you are goal-focused, you switch off the circuits for self and social.  The two are actually opposed.  When you are thinking self and social you do not think about goals, and when you are thinking about goals, you do not think about self and social.  Literally one switches on when the other switches off in the brain.

So what happens in the brain when you do not use something for a long time—you have been goal-focused a long time—you lose the capacity to think about yourself and others, you lose kind of the language, like an instrument you have not played.  So what happens is that we need to develop and reactivate these circuits for self and social, especially at those points of transition.  And what happens at those points of transition from managing self to others, or others to leaders of leaders, is you get a lot more noise in the brain.  You literally get a very significant jump in threat response. 

And I think what goes on is that leaders get promoted really to the level at which their self-regulation strategies peter out, and that is the Peter Principle, from my perspective.  The Peter Principle is that at some point your self-regulation strategies are going to peter out, but you are now in a much higher threat response.  And so suppression was okay when you were managing yourself or others, but now, actually suppression is not working anymore and you are not going to make it past that level.  That is kind of a separate issue. 

So I think the two big things for leaders are developing language for yourself and others and increasing self-regulation.  Those are the two kind of big things that we need to do.  And the great thing about the neuroscience is that it is a frame that is relatively safe, which means non-threatening.  It is a frame that is relatively safe for leaders to kind of engage in both of those things and understanding themselves and others better and engage in self-regulation better.  The neuroscience is kind of a frame to embed those circuits a little bit better.

So if a leader had been focused on goals and objectives for a long time and had allowed that other circuitry, the social, to life, how should they practice getting better at that?

You know, with the brain again, it is just repetitive practice.  Start paying attention to intention.  Intention is a really important thing.  Intention, in some ways is like another word for emotion, but it is people’s intentions.  Start paying much more fine grain focus to your own intentions, and label them, put language around your own intentions as you go into meetings, as you start on projects.  And try to put words and circuits on other people’s intentions.  And this is going to build up the circuitry for self and social.  That is one example.  But literally, just think about people’s motives, people’s intentions, and try to understand the mind; try to get into the mind of other people.  And as you do that, you are going to make your whole circuitry more robust.

Great, thank you. Next, we have a Tweet that comes from India: “Can you give examples on how threats can be converted into rewards?”

Oh, we do it all the time.  We look at a terrible situation and we decide to look at it as an opportunity.  The markets go down and our company’s going through massive change and we say, “Let’s use this as an opportunity to really change everything.  Let’s really do something big here.” We lose a job and we are down for awhile, then we go, “Oh heck, this is a great opportunity to reinvent myself.  It’s a great chance to actually think about what I really want to do.” So it is shifting from that kind of problem focus to “what kind of opportunity could this be?” Which is a toward-state.  What could I move toward?  It is very much physical.  What could I go toward?  What could this be about in the future?  The future is a toward-state; the past is a threat-state.  Movement is a toward-state; not doing anything is a threat-state.  Possibility, vision, goal, all that is a toward-state, the other stuff is a threat-state.

And by the way, I am a big fan of Twitter.  Actually everyone at Twitter has read Your Brain At Work, they use the book a lot and I have been there and done some talks.  If you want to follow me on Twitter it is @DavidRock101 and I post research pretty much every day, kind of fascinating stuff coming out. 

Great. Can you say more about the seven essential daily mental activities that you captured in the Healthy Mind platter?

The US government recently brought out what they called the Healthy Food Plate.  They reinvented the food pyramid which had been around forever, and they sort of simplified it and made it a bit easier to remember and more accurate.

But my research shows that actually diet is not as important as other functions when it comes to longevity.  For example–and don’t take this the wrong way, I know I have doctor before my name but be careful of taking this as a prescription–but literally you are going to live longer if you are overweight, smoke, drink, don’t exercise, live a wild life, don’t sleep very well, you know, really unhealthy, but have a really great social network.  And I don’t mean Facebook.  I mean really a great social support, lots of people you can turn to, and people you really feel close to.

You are going to live longer than if you are really healthy and have poor social support.  You are literally going to live longer.  Social support is a much bigger determiner of length in life than physical factors.  And that is just one example.  There are also things like novelty which is important, and obviously sleep.

So anyway, Dan Segal and I–Dr. Dan Segal is a colleague and a fellow researcher of neuroscience and a fantastic author–Dan and I have been talking for awhile about doing this, and when we saw the press release coming out that the government was doing this soon, we got to researching.  And we said, “Let’s focus people on the bigger game as well, and let’s look at what we put into our minds, not just into our stomach.” And we came up with the seven essential nutrients for a healthy daily life, which we call the Healthy Mind Platter.  It is a non-commercial thing, you can see it at or  You can see kind of the graphic, it is kind of fun.

But essentially there are seven types of time.  There is sleep time.  There is down time, which is literally just non-goal-focused.  Watching telly is fine.  Doing something entirely non-goal-focused is actually important.  So downtime is important.  Time in is important, and time in is actually reflecting–it doesn’t have to be meditation–it can be just reflecting, kind of making those deeper connections.  Connecting time, which means connecting with others is actually really critical for the brain.  Playtime: really critical for the brain.  And it doesn’t have to be a long time, it can be 10 minutes playing with your kids, but it is where you are introducing novelty, you are introducing new connections that you wouldn’t make otherwise. 

So there are all these types of time that we looked at, and the idea is to try to fit a little bit of everything into your day.  And you can mix them.  Do some physical time with some playtime and some connecting time.  Go and play with your kids in the park and have fun and run around and play, you are doing all of them, and it is fantastic for your brain.  And a little bit of this as you go through your day and as you go through a week seems to have a fantastic effect on neural functioning and on our health overall, and it is probably more important to pay attention to that, actually, than diet.  I cannot say that unequivocally, but the studies are showing that where we put our attention and how we organize our time is probably more important than diet in that respect.

David Rock is the author of Personal Best, Quiet Leadership, Coaching with the Brain in Mind, and Your Brain at Work. In collaboration with several leading neuroscientists, David is working to explain the neural basis of issues like self-awareness, reflection, insight and accountability.  David founded the NeuroLeadership Institute and Summit, a global initiative bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together to build a new science of leadership development.

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