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Brain Hacks 4 Leadership

Jul 29, 2020

I am very excited to welcome my guest, Dr. Bill Crawford.  In addition to being named TEC Canada Speaker of the Year in 2016 and Vistage Speaker of the Year for 2019, Dr. Crawford holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Houston.  He is also a licensed psychologist, author of 8 books, and organizational consultant.  Over the past 30 years he has created over 3500 presentations for organizations such as Sprint, Shell, The American Medical Association, and many others both nationally and internationally. His two PBS specials on stress and communication have been seen by over 15 million people, and he has been quoted as an expert in publications such as The New York Times, Entrepreneur, Investor’s Business Daily, The Chicago Tribune, and Working Mother just to name a few. 

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Welcome to another episode of Brain Hacks 4 leadership, really excited to have Dr. Bill with us today. And thank you first off for taking the time to spend time with myself and my listeners on Brain Hacks for leadership.

My pleasure. I'm really looking forward to this. I love the title of your podcast - Brain Hacks 4 leadership. I work with a lot with CEOs, and they really seem to like when we talk about that neuroscience and how to actually understand how the brain works in order to really bring those decisions to life. So the neuroscience of effective decision making seemed like a pretty good idea to use as a framework for what we're going to be talking about.

Yeah, I think you're spot on. It's often called soft stuff, and then we have science behind it. We can help them, it's got a little more validity, right? Well, great. Thank you so much. And I'm excited about the topic that you're going to discuss. You want to tell us a little bit more about the topic and some of the science behind it?

Sure. So when I was getting my PhD, I really wanted to understand the science behind why we think and feel what we think and feel. So I was learning a lot about the psychological theory, but I wanted to know the science. So I actually left the college of psychology and went to the college of biology and took a course called the biological basis of behavior. And in it, I learned that everything we think and feel and do, and say how we react to others, how others react to us all has to do with how the brain processes information. So I've spent the last 30 years of my life creating a system of philosophy, a framework that I call "life from the top of the mind" that basically teaches people how to access their best by accessing a specific part of the brain and how to avoid the stress, frustration, anxiety, the stuff that gets in the way of our ability to make effective decisions by avoiding a specific part of the brain.

Yeah. I love that. Well, tell me what is some of the brain science behind the decisions? Where is that, in the brain that, that helps us make good decisions that maybe sometimes stops us from making the best decisions.

Sure. And the brains, of course, very complicated, people spend their lives, studying the brain. So what I try to do just to make it as simple as possible, but also to make it understandable by dividing the brain into three parts, I call it top, middle and lower brain. So our lower brains is the brain stem, everybody's heard of that, that's the fight or flight part of the brain. The middle brain is the limbic system. And this is actually what I've learned is the gatekeeper or in today's terminology, this middle brain limbic system serves as the scanner, the processor and the router. So it scans incoming data, processes it, or interpret it, and then either routes it down to lower brain or up to the upper 80% of the brain, the neocortex, what I call the top of the mind, because this is actually where we have access to our interpersonal skills, problem, solving skills, confidence, creativity, et cetera.

Some people called these frontal lobes of the neocortex. The executive function part of the brain because, this is where we make those executive decisions and those purposeful decisions. And so what I like to do is help people understand how and why this middle brain and the lower brain gets triggered. And then I give them a model that actually spells brain that shows them when they get triggered, when they're experiencing stress or frustration or annoyance or anything that gets in the way of their clarity, how to actually shift from the lower brain up into the upper 80% of the brain. So they can access those qualities and skills and decision making abilities that help them be most effective.

I love that this is great because like you said, the leaders, executives, you're working with one of the critical roles that they play is making decisions and the types of decisions they make, how quickly they make them, how they're thinking through decisions, not only impacted them, but impacts hundreds, thousands of people that are working for them as well. So, yeah. So I'd love to hear how you have applied this in the executives that you coach, how they really, taken these concepts and put them in place.

I do a lot of work with Vistage. Vistage is an organization of CEOs and they bring in a speaker on a regular basis and I'm one of the speakers. And so when I'm talking to these leaders, number one, they don't have a lot of people to bounce things off of. So they're kind of, if you know, the whole lonely at the top thing is, is important. And this is really one of the reasons why this just works so well because it gives them an opportunity. Not only to learn things from speakers like myself, but to have a group of people that they trust and can bounce things off of. So I will start by making sure I understand what gets in the way of their effective decision making. So I'll ask them a question, what are the things that trigger? What kind of situations or people have kind of stressed you out or got under your skin?

And they'll say things like man, you know, difficult people and not enough business and angry customers and people who don't listen and traffic and, you know, there's all kinds of stuff I'll say. Okay, great. So when we're dealing with all of that stuff, how have we found ourselves reacting in the past? And they say, Oh man, I get stressed and I get frustrated and I get annoyed and I get angry. And I say, okay, so now we understand what I call - "the what" I like to talk about the what the why and the how so the what is the fact that this situation has triggered this response, but it's not just that it triggered a response. It's just, it's when it triggers this response, we try to use the response to deal with the trigger. So when we get stressed or frustrated or annoyed, we try to use that to deal with a difficult person or a difficult situation.

And we can't because that actually is a lower brain response. So the stress, the frustration, the anger is a wonderful response in a fight or flight, dangerous situation, but it's a terrible response or an ineffective response, in real life because it actually keeps us from being effective. We don't know that and therefore we try to use that stress to deal with the trigger and we can't, and that makes the trigger seem worse, which triggers another reaction. And that makes it seem worse. And we get caught in a cycle. So in terms of the what, the why, and the how the, what is the cycle, it's not just that we get triggered it's that we get caught in the cycle. The why is the brain. So I teach them the three parts of the brain and I show them how these lower brain responses of stress, frustration, or anger, or just this middle brain interpreting some negative situation is dangerous and throwing us into that part of the brain.

So once we now know what that is, we now know that in order to be effective in life and make effective decisions, we got to get to this clear, confident, creative part of the brain. So I teach them a model that spells brain that's about breathing, relaxing, asking questions, like how would I rather be feeling, what would I teach to someone? I love imagining being that way, because in the image we hold in our mind triggers a corresponding chemical effect in our body and then noticing a change. So it's B R A I N Breathe, Relax, Ask, Imagine, Notice. So that gets people to the top of the mind. Once they do the brain model, they are now in the top of the mind. Then I talk about, okay, now that we are there, let's talk about how to stay there. Let's talk about how to live there.

Let's talk about how to rewire the brain. So we talk about neuropathways, we've got some old neuropathways that are going from my middle brain down to the lower brain. And what we want to do is create new neuropathways going from the middle of the brain, to the neocortex, the upper 80% of the brain. And then, and so what I do is I show them how to begin to rewire the brain and give them something to practice that if they'll practice every day, they will have rewired their brain within two to four months. So that's the second part of the model. Then the third part of the model is okay, when you're dealing with a person who is stuck in their lower brain, how do you actually get them to shift from their resistant brain to their receptive brain? Because one of the jobs of leaders is to deal with people around them, inspire people around them and to deal with people who disagree with them and to get them into what's called a solution focused conversation. So the CEOs really love that because they're always dealing with people who aren't listening to them. And so the idea that they can actually get someone to shift from that resistant brain to the receptive brain is pretty exciting to these folks.

Oh, I love that. I love that, that whole methodology around how you're getting them to really think about their reactions and then the things that they can do and put in place, and then getting them to shift from resistance to receptive, right. Creating that influence. So could you dig a little further and tell us what are some of the practices? What's the practice that you have them put in place? Great. Sure.

So once they've learned the brain model, which actually spells brain, so it's, you know, it's pretty easy to do you , there's some four by four breathing. Some people call it the box, breathing saying the word, relax on the exhale. So you're kind of having this upper 80% of the brain literally take over breathing and relaxing, which are normally controlled by the lower brain. So those two steps have this upper 80% of the brain regain control, but then not stopping with the breathing. A lot of people tell me they really like breathing, but then when they stop breathing here comes the anxiety again. So breathing just kind of puts you in a position to then say, okay, if I don't want to feel stressed, angry, frustrated, how do I want to feel? And beginning to create a certain image in mind, who am I, when I am clear and confident and creative, that actually triggers certain chemicals, serotonin and endorphins versus adrenaline, noradrenalin and cortisol, and then notice the change.

So once they're in the top of the mind using the brain, I say, okay, so what we want to do is to recognize that our perspective on life will trigger either that lower brain or the upper brain. This is where I bring in cognitive psychology and help them change their perspective from "this makes me this way" to "Wait a minute. My middle brain is interpreting some negative situation as dangerous and throwing me into the part of the brain that's designed to deal with danger". So it's important they get past "the difficult people drive me crazy" or "hard decisions really worry me" or "lack of business really frustrates me". We don't want the trigger to have the power to throw us into the lower brain. So we changed the perspective from "this makes me feel this way" to my middle brain is interpreting some negative situation as dangerous, throwing me into the lower brain.

Then once we have decided, here are the qualities and characteristics I want to bring to life, here is what I tell them to do to rewire the brain. We can't wait until we're dealing with a difficult person or a difficult situation. Because by that time we're triggered, we have to practice going into life already in this clear, confident, creative part of the brain. So I tell them to wake up and before they do anything, before they look at their phone, before they turn on the TV, before they talk to anybody, ask a question, what's my highest purpose this morning, which means what are the qualities and characteristics I want to bring in to the morning? So let's say it's clear, confident, and compassionate. All right. So I want to, how do I want to be when I'm with my family, clear, confident, compassionate, what does it look like?

How do I want to be when I'm driving to work? So when, when somebody cuts me off, I still want to be clear, confident, and compassionate. When I'm dealing with something at work, I want to be, you know, there's, in other words, they create an image of how they want to be in the morning, but just the morning, because I want them to limit the time that they're practicing this stuff. Then around lunchtime, I tell them to reboot and reboot means, do the brain model or say a prayer, or take a walk outside to do some deep breathing or do something that creates a moment of clarity. Moment of serenity, Stephen Covey calls it the pause button, Viktor Frankl in his book, Man's Search for Meaning calls it the space between the stimulus and the response. So you create a space 15, 20 seconds. Doesn't need to take very long and you stop and you breathe.

And then you ask yourself a top of the mind question. What's my highest purpose this afternoon, just the afternoon. And you choose qualities or characteristics you want to bring into the afternoon. And you imagine going into the afternoon, practicing being this way. And then that is your practice for the afternoon. Then on the drive home, or sometime between the afternoon, the evening you reboot. And you ask that question, what's my highest purpose this evening. So you're bringing these qualities into the evening. So you're rebooting in the very beginning, you're bringing certain qualities into the morning. You're rebooting around lunchtime, bringing qualities into the afternoon, rebooting around dinnertime or the drive home, bringing qualities into the evening. And that has you practicing, going into life already in the upper 80% of the brain. And I tell people, if you will do this every day for two to four months, that will rewire your brain because every time you're practicing it, you are creating and reinforcing new neural pathways that go from the limbic system to the neocortex.

I love that. I love that. Yeah, you're creating those habits because we're just a combination of habits.

People get that habits are really just neuropathways. And the reason old habits have been ruling us because we have these old neuropathways, which by the way, don't go away just because we decide we don't like them. They're still there. So if we don't start practicing the new stuff, we will be by definition, practicing the old stuff, because it's just there and it is habitual. So that's where I really encourage them to practice this because it will take some practice in order to rewire the brain. But when they get that they're rewiring the brain and it's going to help them access this intelligent part of who they are. That's where they feel more willing to do the work.

I love that. I love that practice, that exercise. I'm sure you've seen a lot of great results with some of the leaders that you've coached as you've gone through this. Do you have any specific examples of how it's really helped them make better decisions?

Yeah. I was doing a leadership retreat for an organization outside of Cincinnati. They're called JBM packaging. They make envelopes and things, and it's like a 24 hour plant that makes this stuff. And we were on a leadership retreat. We were in this cabin in the woods. It was really great. And the leadership team was there. So I took them through the model and they just went nuts like, Oh man, this is so cool. And because they were the leadership team and the CEO was there as well, they started thinking, okay, wait a minute. How could this become part of our culture? Because they were really big on bringing a perspective to the culture. They said, Hey bill, would you be willing to teach this to everybody? Our organization? I went - sure. And so I went and I did three shifts. You know, this is a 24 hour plant.

So one of them was 4:30 in the morning and other one is 11:30. And another one was like 6:30 in the evening. But I taught this model to everybody and they created as part of their culture. And so they now call it a "top of the mind culture" and it infuses how they hire people and how they deal with disciplinary things. And the CEO went home and talked to his family. He said, you know, family given that I'm the leader of this family, I think, and this is something I tell leaders that they really ought to be willing to interact with people as if it is kind of being videotaped. And this videotape could be used as a training film for everyone in their organization and their family. So the CEO, his name was Dan. He went home and told his family, said, you know, I just learned that I have a responsibility to you guys.

I should be interacting with you in a way that could be used as a training film. So I tell you what, if you see me interacting with you and he was telling his kids, his teenage kids, this, if you see me interacting with you in a way that you don't feel should be used as a training film, would you please let me know? And of course the kid says, sure will dad, but it was his commitment to this process that I found so valuable that he was willing to do this. And of course it changed his relationship with his teenage kids. Cause he was no longer going from arguing. He knew that if this were being recorded as a training film, how would he want his kids to emulate what he was doing as a leader and as a parent.

Wow, that is really powerful because that's not just an example of how leaders can help themselves. But it's impacting organizations, cultures and their personal lives.

Exactly. Because as leaders see, we are the powerful people in people's lives. People are looking at us as a model for how powerful people get things done and they will emulate what they see, which is great when we're choosing qualities and characteristics that we want them to emulate. Not so great when we're coming from that lower brain.

Next question for you is how would you apply this to yourself personally? How has it impacted you, your relationships and how you make decisions?

Yeah. Well, I like to make sure that I'm practicing what I'm preaching. So what I do is whenever I'm dealing with a quote unquote stressful situation, I just imagine that all of the people in my seminars are watching me going, let's see how the hot shot psychologist deals with this. So this whole idea of living life as if you're being recorded to be used as a training film, whenever I encounter a negative situation, I just say, okay, what if this were a training film? So not too long ago when I was flying, flying now because nobody is, but when I'm flying, I went to the airport and they said, yeah, we've canceled your flight and I could start to feel the cortisol go down the back of my neck, but I knew what was going on. And I went, okay, so what are we going to do?

They said, well, don't worry, we've rerouted you through Orlando. And you're going to arrive in Long Island about 12 o'clock tonight. And I went, Nope, not gonna work that's way past my bedtime. So I said, you know, is there a place, you know, I don't mind driving. Is there a place I can fly to? And then I can drive to long Island. And I said, what about LaGuardia? And they went, Oh, look at that. Well, yeah, there's a direct flight to LaGuardia. I tell you what, here's your ticket? The flight is boarding right now. Now I'm at the ticket counter. Right? I haven't gone through security. Here came the cortisol, but I went, okay, all right. What if this were a training film? All right. So I was optimistic and I've got TSA precheck. So I went through TSA precheck and they went, you know, when you go through the little thing, you have been chosen as a random person to be selected and here came the cortisol. But every time I see the, because I know what's happening. And because I was seeing it as a training film, I was able to keep it from going all the way down there. I could feel myself start to be triggered, but then I shifted back up to the top of the mind. So that's what I try to do whenever I'm dealing with a challenging situation is to recognize, okay, Bill, you teach people how to do this. This is your opportunity to practice what you preach.

I love that. I love that concept of living life, as if it were a training, film, I would have to think about some of the things I'm doing personally. Maybe apply that myself because it is important. We should be applying what we're talking about all the time. And it does really change our health and our relationships.

Oh, speaking of health, by the way, when we get triggered down into this lower brain, it triggers adrenaline noradrenaline and cortisol, cortisol rushes throughout our body shutting down what it believes are non-essential systems so that we can go into fight or flight. And one of those non-essential systems it shuts down is our immune system. So man, what we need right now is a really healthy immune system. We don't want this cortisol shutting it down, thinking we're in a fight or flight situation. When we're coming from the upper 80% of the brain, we're not only making better decisions, we're triggering serotonin and endorphins, which actually strengthens our immune system. In addition to helping us think clear, that's what the serotonin does, helps us think clearer and make better decisions.

Yeah. And just understanding that once we understand the science behind it and how we're wired and those small things that we can do really catching ourselves and, you know, using the practices that you talked about before. So as our leaders are listening to this and thinking about how they may apply this themselves. And sometimes it can be overwhelming thinking about everything, right?

What's one small thing that you would recommend that someone can put in place right now, after listening to this?

What I would encourage them to do now that they know that their stress and their frustration, their anger, their resentment and all those negative emotions, which are understandable. They don't have to feel bad about them. But if they'll start to recognize, these are brainstem reactions, lower brain reactions that are wonderful. When I'm in a physically dangerous situation, wherever fight or running away is what I need to do. But it actually gets in the way of my effective decision making. So one of the things they can ask themselves whenever they find themselves thinking or feeling anything is, Hey, am I coming from my lower brain? Or am I coming from the top of the mind? And if I'm coming from the lower brain, what you don't want to do is trust that as a energy for making a decision. At the very least wait, you know, give yourself an hour or sleep on it or something until you can really know you're coming from the top of the mind, if just, they stop trying to make decisions when they're in that lower brain, that will be a huge factor in terms of their better decision making, going forward.

I love that. I love your brain acronym as well. And so, you know, what you told us is that we have three parts of your mind, right? We've got that lower mind, that fight or flight that middle mind that's our Limbic. You talked about scanner processor, router gateway, right? And then the top that neocortex, which is really their executive thinking skills, the part of the brain that we want to access the most.

And also the top of the mind is not just where we are intellectual. Certainly our intellect comes from there, but this is where our ability to be compassionate and our ability to understand another person, our ability to love people comes from this. The in love stuff is the lower brain, which is a good stuff. But the ability to really be compassionate with someone that's a, that's an upper brain perspective. And as a leader, if compassion is what we want in our organization, that's something, we gotta model.

Absolutely. One of my mentors, John Maxwell says, one of the things that employees want to know about you is that you care about them. Absolutely. And, so you have to be able to access it.

I have to show that compassion and people don't know care how much, you know, until they know how much you care, you know?

Absolutely. That's great. And then you talked about your brain acronym, which is that, why, what, what triggers us the why - BRAIN is breathe, relax, asking questions, imagine and notice. And then really having a practice where we start putting in place awareness strategies and stating intentions three times a day, which is so powerful. I do that personally in the morning, but I've never stopped to do it in the afternoon and evening. So I can't wait to start applying this personally as well. It's so valuable. I'd be really curious to know what else you're working on right now. Anything?

Yeah. Well, given that right now is me stuck at home because I'm in this vulnerable demographic, you can tell, I've got this gray hair. I just turned 70, not too long ago. And so well, thank you. You made it to 70. And so traveling isn't an option. So what I've done is I've tried to create a virtual environment where I can do my trainings and I've done like 40 of these ever since this whole thing started. I used my life from the top of the mind books. I have a book that is called Life from the Top of the Mind that lays out the system and the philosophy. So going to an organization, teaching this to the leadership team, teaching this to the organization themselves, I mean, what leaders tell me is when they can get everybody in the organization coming from the top of the mind that makes their leadership part of the process so much easier.

Because now they're dealing with people who are making decisions. And just recently I started working with families and family businesses because in a family or a family business, when someone says something, it goes way deeper than just an ordinary conversation, both good and bad. And so a lot of people who are in families or having a family business find themselves kind of in conflict with these people that they love more than life itself. But the intensity of the relationship sometimes almost gets in the way of making good decisions. So I teach them the model and I go and do a workshop with them and then kind of support their families in coming together. So that's, that's what I've just started to roll out. Plus the book The Top of the Mind is just recently on audible. I've just now put it on audible. It is now an audio book. So for those folks who like to listen, it's there.

I love that. I love audible personally. I like to go for walks and work in my garden. I noticed that on your website, you said it's not only on audible, but isn't it you on it as well?

It's me reading the book because I write in the first person. So I didn't want somebody else to read it. Cause you know, when they said I, it wouldn't be my voice and it would be weird, but boy, was it really hard to read your own work. Well, goodness gracious. It took me about a year to do it cause I would, I would read and then I'd mess up and I'd have to go back and going to jump in. So, but it's, it's there and I'm happy with the product.

I love that. I'm definitely going to get that myself too. I love that you put it in your own words and you're really, you know, you're not just helping leaders, but you're changing lives and helping families and really making a difference. And I really appreciate you spending the time with us today to share some key things we could do right away. They're going to help us not only at work but at home.

Ah, yeah, that's what people tell me. They love the fact that the material they're learning in a, in a seminar or a workshop, they're able to apply pretty much everywhere in their life because you know, sometimes people say, you know, Bill, I'm pretty good at work. It's when I get home, that's when I really get triggered. And so the ability to bring these top of the mind perspective there, uh, people tell me it's really valuable.

Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time. And I hope to bring you back again. Are you writing another book or thinking of another book right now?

I have a book called, it's my eighth book, My Life from the Top of the Mind, what's called my flagship book and it has my seminar in it. I've got a book called College from the Top of the Mind where I take it and apply it to people in college. I've got another book called What to Say. So this third part of the model that teaches people how to shift from the lower brain to the upper brain. People really need to see examples of that. Cause that's the hardest part of the system. And so I've written another book called What to Say, where I really go into depth. Okay. When you're talking to your teenager, when you're talking to your spouse or when you're talking to your direct report or when you're talking to your boss or something like that, how do you frame this conversation so that it moves to a solution focused conversation?

Wow, such great resources. I'm definitely going to get those to use with myself and my clients. Cause there's this very common needs and common challenges that we have. Well, thank you so much. I look forward to having you back again.

I would love to, and thanks for the invitation, when I saw the title of your podcast and went, Oh cool. This is gonna, this is going to fit right in there with it.

It does. It does. Thank you.


To reach out to Dr. Crawford, his website is

If you would like to reach out to me for Executive Coaching or Organization Consulting, you can reach me at and my website is