Five ‘brain enhancing’ skills leaders will need by 2020

Carole Gaskell looks at a few easy ways to improve your mental performance. 

According to The World Economic Forum’s ‘Future of Jobs’ report, complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, judgment and decision making, and cognitive flexibility will be amongst the most desirable skills most in demand by 2020. 

All five skills are cognitive based – core skills that our brains use to think, read, learn, remember, reason, and pay attention. Working together, they take incoming information and move it into the bank of knowledge you use every day at work, and in life. Anyone who functions well cognitively can quickly process various mental activities most closely associated with learning and problem solving.

Critical thinking is key to success in any industry as people that are good at this can analyse information objectively and make reasoned judgments. They evaluate data, facts and observable phenomena; discriminate between valuable and less valuable information; and then draw clear conclusions to help solve a problem or make a decision. 

Measuring and improving brain fitness in people, teams and organisationally helps everyone to out-think, out-learn, out-create and out-perform.

Complex problem solving is defined as ‘a collection of self-regulated psychological processes and activities necessary in dynamic environments to achieve ill-defined goals that cannot be reached by routine actions’.

Leaders need to flex their creativity, (use their imagination or original ideas to be inventive), to come up with creative combinations of knowledge and a broad set of strategies to drive the right solution and best result.

Enhancing neuro-agility

Each of these fundamental skills requires a person’s brain to process thoughts and information in an agile way, so developing and refining these skills all depends on their level of brain fitness and neuro-agility – a phrase coined by neuroscientist, Dr André Vermeulen which requires the readiness of all our brain’s regions to function as one integrated whole brain system.

When people are neuro-agile, they have the flexibility to learn new skills, attitudes and behaviours fast and easily, and unlearn old behaviour patterns quickly. Measuring and improving brain fitness in people, teams and organisationally helps everyone to out-think, out-learn, out-create and out-perform.

There are two important aspects at stake that underpin how neuro-agile leaders are – and therefore affect their aptitude to learn and develop new skills.

These are firstly understanding the seven factors of their own unique neurological design (their hardware – and making the most of it) and secondly, once this is understood, we need to address six drivers (the software) that optimise an individual’s brain performance and significantly influence the ease, speed, and flexibility with which we learn.

Know your own unique neurological design

The naturally strengthened neural networks between neurophysiological aspects influence people’s predisposition towards which brain regions, senses and intelligences will dominate (lead) during learning, thinking and cognitive processes. Understanding this provides the foundations for successful learning.

Six drivers of brain performance and agility

The six drivers are brain fitness, stress coping skills, sleep, movement, exercise, nutrition and positive attitude, which significantly affect a person’s brain health, thereby impacting their ability to acquire new skills. 

Stretching at work, having meetings standing up plus stimulating the brain with mental activities, games, puzzles, music and humour makes a huge difference to brain fitness.


During movement and exercise, neurotransmitters are secreted which increase concentration levels, at the same time humans excrete stress hormones out of the body. Exercise also increases dendritic growth which mean brain cells have greater connectivity and receive more information from other neurons.

Stress is the brain’s greatest enemy. When people experience stress, brain performance can be reduced. Breathing and mindfulness help.

Getting quality sleep (at least five hours of deep sleep) is also important. Brainwaves slow to alpha frequency as people rest, theta frequency is when we feel drowsy, then delta waves when we sleep or are dreaming. Delta waves are critical for brain health.

Food and nutrition impact brain health. The nutrients in food produce essential brain chemicals – neurotransmitters – these require a protein-rich diet and eight glasses of water a day to thrive.

Finally, positive attitude is crucial for brain health. Positive thoughts stimulate secretion of neuro-transmitters which facilitate thinking, learning and creativity. Negative thoughts stimulate secretion of inhibitor chemicals which block or limit the flow of electro-chemical impulses and reduce brain performance.

So, give leaders positive feedback and help them visualise positive outcomes as this forms more connections between their brain cells, so they naturally create new neural pathways to enhance their learning of new skills.

Creating an environment that’s conducive to these six drivers together with understanding how individuals are ‘wired’ will help your leaders to swiftly adapt and learn the skills of the future.


About the author

Carole Gaskell is founder of Full Potential Group, one of the UK’s top leadership and talent development firms.



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