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Change Leadership: Three Brains Are Better Than One

Written by: Patricia Faust, MGS, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Over the past few years, neuroscience research has determined that we operate with three brains (Cephalic/Head, Cardiac/Heart, Enteric/Gut). Each of these brains has sensory neurons, motor neurons, ganglia, and neurotransmitters. They can take in information, process it, store it, and access it when needed. This revelation may come as a surprise for many of us. However, these brains have always been operating on our behalf and we have either not recognized or perhaps ignored the messages that are being sent to us.

Human beings have always expressed love, feelings, and emotional pain coming from the heart, and basic feeling of intuition coming from the gut. Listening to all three of our brains is critical in decision-making. The heart and gut are fully equipped to do some thinking on their own. And sometimes, they are giving the brain orders instead of taking them. We are truly integrated beings!

The Cephalic (Head) Brain

The brain we know is the most complex organ in the body. It is composed of 100 billion neurons that communicate along trillions of connections called synapses. Our cephalic brain is great for thinking, cognitive perception, and making meaning of things; at its best, it is the seat of creativity. Specialized areas of the brain work together to store and access memories and process your surroundings. The brain can help in making good decisions in really difficult situations.

The Cardiac (Heart) Brain

The heart itself has nearly 2 billion muscle cells and 40,000 neurons. 100,000 times per day the heart repeats its monotonous task of survival. Our heart brain is meant to take the lead on emotional processing, on values and on our connection with others; at its best, it is the source of passion and compassion. Recent studies have shown that the heart sends signals to the brain that are not only understood but obeyed. Scientists have also discovered that the heart is involved in processing and decoding of ‘intuitive information’. In the studies, tests done on subjects revealed that the heart appeared to receive the intuitive information before the brain.

The Enteric (Gut) Brain

The gut (digestive system of the body) has close to 500,000 million nerve cells and 100 million neurons. Not only does the gut talk with the brain chemically (by releasing chemicals which are then taken to the brain by blood) but also by sending electrical signals via the Vagus nerve. Recent research has revealed that there is a tremendous amount of information flow from the gut to the brain and not the other way around. More research has determined that a big part of our emotions is probably influenced by the chemicals and nerves in our gut. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter which is a well-known contributor towards feelings of wellbeing. Our gut brain is designed to focus on our sense of self, on self-preservation and mobilization; at its best, it is the root of courage.

Leadership Decision-Making

Often, business leaders are unaware of the value of the messages sent through the heart and gut brains. Their focus is a strictly rational decision using the brain (Cephalic) to process necessary data and analysis. They don’t want to depend on gut feeling, and they want emotion out of the equation. Many times, this approach yields excellent results, but other times a reasonable decision is not attainable.

Understanding the roles of the three brains should be basic knowledge for leadership and used daily. During times of transformational change, the old ways of doing things and even the old ways of thinking are no longer viable. The massive change in operations for the corporate world, as experienced with COVID-19, exposed many standard operating procedures to be ill-suited for a remote workforce. It was at a time like this when there were no clear answers immediately available, or multiple solutions that needed time to be vetted. Taking long periods of time to make decisions was not an option. Productivity and quality took a hit; power dynamics shifted. The amygdala, emotional center of the brain, kicked into high gear and initiated the stress response of fight or flight. Everyone across the organization was in some state of high stress. And those who were most resistant to the change – fight, and those most capable navigating change - take flight. Not only are the three brains critical for leaders during major change, but the sequence in which they are applied makes a difference as well.

  1. Heart (Cardiac) Brain: How passionate is the leader about achieving the end state that the change initiative promises? In the absence of deep passion for the change itself and for its successes, they will begin with either the cephalic or enteric brain.

  2. Head (Cephalic) Brain: Connecting to a deep passion to succeed the change, the leader can be creative about ways which that end state may take shape. A leader who starts here because their heart isn’t in the change won’t bring the same level of creativity; nor will they ever develop the level of commitment needed to lead a transformational initiative. People will realize that their “heart isn’t in it.” It is unlikely they will invest their hearts either.

  3. Gut (Enteric) Brain: Serving as a change leader in a major change takes courage, which is rooted here. Now is the time to assess the creative options and choose courageously the one that will set the course for the path forward. The path chosen in this way will likely involve painful decisions, unknown risks, and sometimes high levels of uncertainty. Neither the cardiac nor the cephalic brain will select the courageous path. Yet it is the courageous path that offers the greatest potential for success.

  4. Head (Cephalic) Brain: Having chosen the path, the cephalic brain allows the “rational thinking” that can help an organization plan and prepare for launching the change initiative. [1]

The leader needs to cycle back and forth in the three brains. The cardiac brain brings compassion to the planning – it fuels the passion for the change, keeping the leader involved, committed, and moving forward. The enteric brain provides the courage for major decisions that need to be made with insufficient information and courage to take the difficult actions that are required. The cephalic brain offers its expertise in critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity. Leaders who apply the three brains in this sequence are reprogramming the neural networks to believe in and succeed with – leading the change. They are planting the seeds in their subconscious that will help them find the path through the obstacles that arise. And they are modeling the way their leadership team and those throughout the organization need to approach change – with all three brains.

For more info, follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and visit my website! Read more from Patricia!


Patricia Faust, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine Patricia Faust is a gerontologist specializing in the issues of brain aging, brain health, brain function, and dementia. She has a Masters in Gerontological Studies degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Patricia is certified as a brain health coach and received a certification in Neuroscience and Wellness through Dr. Sarah McKay and the Neuroscience Academy. My Boomer Brain, founded in 2015, is the vehicle that Patricia utilizes to teach, coach, and consult about brain aging, brain health, and brain function. Her newsletter, My Boomer Brain, has international readers from South Africa, Australia, throughout Europe, and Canada. Patricia’s speaking experience spans the spectrum of audiences as she addresses corporate executives on brain function, regional financial professionals on client diminished capacity, and various senior venues concerning issues around brain aging and brain health.





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