The Empowered Blog

Brain Science Secrets to Increase Leadership Willpower

When I was in my 20’s and 30’s, I was the queen of willpower. I have always thrived on achieving big goals.  My downfall was using a “white knuckle” approach to achieving those goals.

ego depletion

Willpower Exhaustion

Because of my exertion-exhaustion approach,  my world came crashing down with life threatening illnesses that cost me everything in my life.  While I wished I had learned the lesson in a less traumatic way, there was a gift in that experience.

It catalyzed me to seek mindset tools and technologies to create results with ease and less effort.  It motivated me to learn how the brain works and its impact on our thoughts, emotions and behaviors.  It taught me how to live and realize inspiring work and life.

While my details may be different than yours, how many times as a leader have you:

  • Used brute force and over-efforting to achieve goals?
  • Mustered every ounce of your being to power through what needed to be done?
  • Berated yourself for not making the changes and vowed to try harder?

Willpower is one of the least understood concepts, especially in the world of leadership.  To make tough decisions, manage never-ending changes and handle the demands of their roles, leaders rely heavily on willpower to make things happen.

Leaders also often pay a heavy price when they hit the willpower wall and spiral downward on both personal and company levels.  Let’s take a look at why.

Myths & Realities:  What Willpower Is and Is Not

Psychologists now understand that willpower is defined by 5 specific characteristics:

  • Delaying gratification and resisting short-term temptations to meet long-term goals
  • Overriding an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse
  • Employing a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system
  •  Effortful regulating of self by the self
  • Limited resource capable of being depleted

According to Kelly McGonigal PhD, author of The Willpower Instinct, willpower is an instinct that comes from both the brain and body.

The prefrontal cortex houses our decision making and behavioral control functions.  Self control, or willpower, is directed by this part of the brain.

Brain science tells us also that the prefrontal cortex can be easily depleted from cognitive and emotional tasks (such as, regulating our emotions).  The same tasks that leaders are required to perform non-stop in their roles.

The fact that we have just so much willpower before it runs out is a critical, yet seldom addressed issue in the world of leadership.  Willpower-depleted leaders have a tendency to push the envelope even harder until they crash and burn.  The ultimate risk for leaders is suffering from serious willpower exhaustion.

When leaders hit this danger point, the company pays a high price in irrational decision making, addictions, low productivity, out of control emotions, a toll on personal lives and the list goes on.

The key is for leaders to learn the right use of willpower to lead their company to higher levels of success and growth.  In my experience in working with leaders, below are examples when willpower is used for the right reasons:

  • Delaying immediate gratification in your decision making

Doing so builds a leader’s strategic thinking capacity – ie., focusing on long term company gains, rather than reacting to “short-termitis” or immediate gratification.

  • Living your purpose, vision and values

Living your company’s purpose and values takes daily leadership discipline and self-control. This right use of willpower requires leaders to respond to unexpected events through the lens of  purpose, vision and values, rather than go into crisis mode.

  • Pacing change and growth

Most leaders have high initiative.   This quality is typically a leadership asset.  However, when it comes to change and growth, leaders must learn to utilize willpower to pace both at a rate their organization can handle.  A leader’s urge to go full force will cost the company the very outcomes it seeks.

How Do Leaders Exhaust Their Willpower?

The factors below are just the tip of the iceberg.

  • Inability to Right-Size Stress

Under high levels of stress, the fight-or-flight response floods a leader’s body with energy to act instinctively rather than being utilized by the prefrontal cortex for effective decision-making.  High stress drives a leader to focus on short term survival outcomes, rather than the big picture, due to depleted willpower.

  •  Trap of Excellence

Striving for excellence can be a trap for perfectionism.  Perfectionistic leaders have a mindset … “if I am not perfect in performing this task, then I am a failure.”  Expecting a perfect outcome takes its toll on a leader’s willpower and puts him/her into over-drive.  Such perfectionistic tendencies show up in  micro-managing, “analysis paralysis” or unwillingness to delegate, thus further depleting a leader’s energy reserves.

  •  “Away From” Motivated Goals

“Away from” motivated goals are stated in terms of what you don’t want —  eg., “I don’t want to procrastinate anymore.”  “Away from” goals actually reinforce the outcome you don’t want.  They also take enormous willpower to overcome and, doing so, depletes that scarce resource.

  •  Deficient Brain Fuel

Given the on-going demands on time and energy, leaders often neglect exercise, diet and sleep to cope with their workload.  Yet ignoring these basic necessities for brain functioning further depletes a leader’s blood sugar needed to fuel willpower, resulting in decreased performance.

The key is to recognize your willpower’s limitations – in quantity and effectiveness.  The next step is to learn how to strengthen your willpower for when you need it most in your  role.

7  Simple Strategies to Strengthen & Conserve Your Leadership Willpower

According to Kathleen Martin Ginis, assistant professor of kinesiology at McMaster University, willpower is like a muscle and needs to be challenged to build itself.  At the other end, just as an over-trained athlete needs rest and recovery, balancing the active use of willpower with downtime is a must.

Below are my 7 favorite strategies for conserving and strengthening leadership willpower.

1.     Empty Your Mind

leadership willpower

Quiet Mind

Today’s leaders find themselves driven by a fast paced agenda, often denying themselves critical downtime to replenish their minds and bodies to be effective.  A daily 5-10 minute meditation is your best strategy for reducing stress, improving emotional and physical wellbeing, as well as tapping into your intuition for your next right actions and decisions.

2.     Leverage the Power of Oxytocin

Peer support helps strengthen a leader’s willpower. Doing so makes reaching goals easier, while using less willpower to do so.  A bonus benefit of peer support is an increase in your bonding neurohormone — oxytocin — that lowers stress, increases relaxation and amplifies trust among the team.

3.     Increase Willpower with the Right Fuel

Willpower is not all in the mind.  It is critical to supply your body with the high quality fuel it needs.  Reduce sugar and carbs to avoid energy dips, which can further deplete your willpower supply.

4.     Anticipate Problems

“What if” strategies are critical for both strengthening and conserving your leadership willpower.  Such strategies require you to figure in advance how you will deal with obstacles and make a plan for dealing with such obstacles.

5.     Ask Bigger Questions to Unleash Motivation

Rather than depend on willpower to reach your goals, ask yourself bigger questions to unleash motivation such as … “Who do I want to become as a leader?” … “WHY are these goals important to me?”  Tapping into your deepest  motivations fuels an energy source that pulls you toward your goal, rather than pushing through willpower.

6.     Frame Challenges as Pleasure

Recently I asked a leader to write a one year vision of what he wanted to achieve.  He originally wrote what a struggle it was to overcome his challenges around organization.  I asked him to reframe the challenge as a learning process and a series of small wins that he celebrated, rather than a struggle.

How you speak to yourself can determine success or failure.  The key is to reframe challenges by describing the resourceful state, not the disempowering one, you want to experience to achieve your desired outcome.

7.     Chunk Down to the “Critical Few”

Conserve your willpower for what really matters.  Set priorities and stop doing the things outside the critical few   Schedule time in the morning while you have a full tank of willpower to progress on your critical few.  Then give yourself a break to rebuild your willpower reserve.

The Most Important Point … Are you really ready to change?

Are you really ready to let go of your exertion – exhaustion cycle and experience an easier, more rewarding leadership path, starting TODAY? 

Your challenge with this change is rarely an issue of not knowing “how to’s.”  In fact, seeking out more knowledge can be a trap.

The truth is … change can happen in an instant … almost appear magical to the outside world.

The secret is to ask yourself  3 simple questions: 

What’s the greater motivator right now regarding making this change … to avoid pain or seek pleasure?  Ie., Do you perceive making this change as painful or pleasurable?

What will you gain if you keep using the “white knuckle” approach?

What will you lose if you keep using the “white knuckle” approach?

When you can honestly say that making the above changes is the greater motivator than sticking with old behaviors, the change has already started.  Practicing the “how to’s” just reinforces that desire and you are on your way to a different leadership experience.


Denise Corcoran works with CEOs and executive teams seeking rapid growth yet are challenged by the “invisible barriers” that keep them stuck, overwhelmed or in crisis mode. Her company —The Empowered Business — is one of the few companies providing whole brain, strategic solutions for unleashing leadership and organizational potential. Her secret sauce is assisting CEOs and executive teams develop the “X factor” – i.e., the mindset, attitudes and game-changing thinking -- that drives double and triple digit growth … by design.


Posted by Denise Corcoran on May 6, 2014 in Goal Achievement, Leadership Development, Leadership Performance, Mindset, Motivation, Willpower and tagged , , , , , , , .

Comments are closed.