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An Integrative Model of Executive Functioning

How to become a better CEO in the business of running your life.

Key points

  • A new model of executive functioning aims to enhance one's personal and professional life.
  • At least three interacting executive systems exist in neurodynamic balance.
  • Optimal executive functioning is a mind, body, and relationship process that relies on the coordination of all three executive systems.

In order to successfully navigate our lives, we depend upon a wide range of emotional, social, and cognitive abilities organized within the networks of our executive brain. The executive brain is made up of three different neural systems, each with its own functional roles, evolutionary history, and developmental course. For most of the 20th century, the central dogma of executive functioning focused mainly on cognition. It was thought to be a specific set of high-level cognitive abilities including working memory, problem-solving, and abstract reasoning. This is why most experts in executive functioning use computer analogies and flowcharts to explain how the brain works. In general, they completely disregard the haphazard nature of our stream of consciousness and the value of input from the body, emotions, and social relationships.

If our functioning is controlled purely by logic, how is it that we can know what is best for us and still fail to act accordingly? Why is it that the same set of circumstances can feel manageable one day and intolerable the next? How do we return a tennis ball that travels too quickly for us to make a decision about how it should be returned? How do we know when to respond to someone with our heart rather than our mind? What is it that allows us to make a choice that feels right instead of the one that looks good on paper? While executive systems are generally thought of as mechanisms of top-down control, why can’t executive systems for more primitive functions, such as physiological states and reflexive reactions to danger, have systems of executive control that are bottom-up?

The reality is that some of our actions are guided by higher-order thinking, and some are informed by intuitive bottom-up processes, while others are influenced by reading the people around us and responding to the needs of that moment. The many streams of information that guide our behavior are evidence that our functioning relies on more than one executive system. As we open our minds to expanded notions of executive functioning, it seems safe to say that we should include the categories of emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and self-awareness in the mix. Emotional intelligence should include such areas as one’s ability to successfully navigate stress and exhibit emotional control in challenging situations. Self-awareness would be expressed in the ability to engage in self-reflection, strike a balance between self-care and caring for others, and being able to take responsibility for one’s actions. Social intelligence would include understanding things from the perspective of others and the ability to experience sympathy, empathy, and compassion. It is clear that these social and emotional abilities are interdependent in the same way as attention, concentration, language, and memory combine to organize and drive cognitive functioning.

All three of these areas—emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and social intelligence; traditionally excluded from the conversation by cognitive scientists—have gained both scientific and cultural support. We certainly have to negotiate day-to-day survival; not touch hot stoves, eat yellow snow, or walk too close to the edge of the cliff. But we also have to deal with many different people, be aware of our inner experiences, and keep our emotions regulated and express them appropriately. We have to manage ongoing relationships with ourselves and others close to us and engage in self-care while taking care of those for whom we are responsible. This more inclusive model accounts for many of the variables we have always recognized as relevant to successful adaptation but were without specific tests or a theoretical model to assess or include them in our evaluation.

While we are at the early stages of developing a neurodynamic model of executive functioning, I would like to share the model I use with my psychotherapy and executive coaching clients. I believe this model accounts for many of the aspects of executive functioning that are usually left unaddressed by cognitive psychologists. My proposal is that there are at least three interacting executive systems that exist in neurodynamic balance. Further, all three networks are in executive control of different aspects of functioning and need to connect, integrate, and work together in order to achieve optimal executive functioning.

The first and most primitive system, centered in the amygdala, monitors the environment for safety and danger. It is responsible for triggering arousal, stress, and fear in response to threat. The second frontal-parietal system organizes our intellect, planning, and problem-solving. The third executive, the default mode network (DMN), provides us with the ability to experience a sense of self and to connect to others via attunement, empathy, and compassion. Optimal executive functioning is a full mind, body, and relationship process that relies on the coordination of the skill sets of all three executive systems.

Chloe Drulis, used with permission.
Source: Chloe Drulis, used with permission.

Think for a moment about these structures of the executive brain as they might relate to a business executive. A successful CEO is usually judged first and foremost on her ability to understand her area of expertise and make good decisions based on a deep understanding of a specific industry (second executive). In addition, she needs to be able to regulate her arousal, mood, and temper in order to interact appropriately with others (first executive). Finally, she has to be able to remain self-possessed, take her own counsel, and understand the feelings, needs, and motivations of those around her (third executive). In my experience, it is difficult to be successful in the CEO’s chair without good functioning across all three executive systems.

In my coaching work with executives, I’ve been able to find and address problems using this three-system model. Everyone I work with has a highly functional second executive, knows their industry, and excels in the cognitive challenges of their work. If there are problems in these areas, the more appropriate assistance will come from other industry experts and not myself. The problems I am confronted with are generally in the areas of the first and third executive systems. On the one hand, people who struggle with anxiety, depression, and difficulty regulating their arousal and emotions (first executive) need to understand and deal with dysregulations of their physiology and affective arousal. Emotional dysregulation and instability will keep an intelligent and competent executive (or any of us for that matter) from being able to stay on task, keep problems in perspective, and sustain focus on a goal. They will be sabotaged by their own emotional dyscontrol and fear of being judged by others.

Another group of managers and executives struggle with their ability to empathize, attune with, and understand the perspective of those they work with (third executive). For these individuals, the focus of coaching will be on attunement, empathy, and social skills requiring the involvement of the default mode network. Individuals demonstrate great variability in DMN skills; some are on the Autism spectrum and lack some of the innate mechanisms related to imitation, attunement, and sympathy provided by mirror neurons and emotional networks. These folks lack some of the basic building blocks of emotional intelligence that they need to learn more by observation and rote memory. There is another group with severe anxiety and unresolved trauma that have highly inhibited DMN development and functioning. For these individuals, anxiety disorders need to be addressed and managed before the DMN can come back online and be available for coaching.

In reality, we all strive to become the CEOs of the business of our lives. So we can ask ourselves, what drives our day-to-day lives? Are our motivations in line with our long-term goals, or are we guided simply by memories of old defenses that result in failure, unhappiness, and the symptoms for which we seek therapy? All three executive systems need to be assessed and addressed to achieve successful functioning. When our executive systems are both well-developed and integrated, we are able to stay on task and remain emotionally regulated at higher levels of challenge and stress. This balance of emotion, intellect, and wisdom reflects optimal executive functioning and what we consider to be the best version of ourselves.