“Cognitive control” is the scientific term for putting one’s attention where one wants it and keeping it there in the face of temptation to wander. This focus is one aspect of the brain’s executive function, which is located in the prefrontal cortex. A colloquial term for it is “willpower.”
Cognitive control enables executives to pursue a goal despite distractions and setbacks. The same neural circuitry that allows such a single-minded pursuit of goals also manages unruly emotions. Good cognitive control can be seen in people who stay calm in a crisis, tame their own agitation, and recover from a debacle or defeat.
Decades’ worth of research demonstrates the singular importance of willpower to leadership success. Particularly compelling is a longitudinal study tracking the fates of all 1,037 children born during a single year in the 1970s in the New Zealand city of Dunedin. For several years during childhood the children were given a battery of tests of willpower, including the psychologist Walter Mischel’s legendary “marshmallow test”—a choice between eating one marshmallow right away and getting two by waiting 15 minutes. In Mischel’s experiments, roughly a third of children grab the marshmallow on the spot, another third hold out for a while longer, and a third manage to make it through the entire quarter hour.
Executives who can effectively focus on others emerge as natural leaders regardless of organizational or social rank.
Years later, when the children in the Dunedin study were in their 30s and all but 4% of them had been tracked down again, the researchers found that those who’d had the cognitive control to resist the marshmallow longest were significantly healthier, more successful financially, and more law-abiding than the ones who’d been unable to hold out at all. In fact, statistical analysis showed that a child’s level of self-control was a more powerful predictor of financial success than IQ, social class, or family circumstance.
How we focus holds the key to exercising willpower, Mischel says. Three subvarieties of cognitive control are at play when you pit self-restraint against self-gratification: the ability to voluntarily disengage your focus from an object of desire; the ability to resist distraction so that you don’t gravitate back to that object; and the ability to concentrate on the future goal and imagine how good you will feel when you achieve it. As adults the children of Dunedin may have been held hostage to their younger selves, but they need not have been, because the power to focus can be developed.