chemistry for success

February 11, 2020

 People think they have free will over their actions, but the truth is that our decisions are controlled by hundreds of chemicals in our body. In view of this, leaders must gain an understanding of the neuroscience behind their choices and mix their own winning chemical cocktail to strategically boost their performance and operate at their peak.

Changes in today’s workplace are estimated by McKinsey Global Institute to be occurring at ten times the pace of the Industrial Revolution and 300 times the scale. Yet, most businesses are expected to consistently operate at a differentiated level in this increasingly complex, exponentially changing environment.

Leaders are at the cold face of this. They are contending with a constant push for innovation and growth, disappearing jobs, endless cost savings initiatives, a constant drive for increased profit, a shrinking workforce, and the competition to hire and retain top talent. This is in addition to executing traditional leadership responsibilities:  establishing and communicating clear goals and objectives, identifying business issues and implementing strategies in response, building agile teams, and leading change initiatives.

The list of challenges is endless and it can seem overwhelming. It is no surprise that workplace stress has increased significantly over the last three decades. The truth is, humans are not evolving as quickly as the pace of change, yet that pace is accelerating, leaving many of us struggling to meet, let alone exceed, expectations.

Claire Dale is co-author of Physical Intelligence

So, how can leaders successfully adapt to this, learn how to perform at their peak in this environment, and improve their leadership performance? The answer lies in neuroscience. You are familiar with cognitive intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ).  How familiar are you with ‘physical intelligence’? Right now, literally hundreds of chemicals are racing through our bloodstreams.  Those chemicals dictate how we think, feel, speak, and behave.  Yet, most of us operate largely at the mercy of those chemicals—experiencing thoughts, reactions, and emotions—without realizing that we can strategically influence them.  Physical intelligence is the ability to detect and actively manage the balance of certain key chemicals through how we think, breathe, move, and communicate in order to achieve more, stress less, and live (and work) more happily.

While there are many chemical interactions that we cannot and would not want to influence, we can influence eight chemicals that work in combination to make or break our success. When they are in balance, we call it the ‘winning cocktail’.


After a busy week and good rest, you find yourself breathing out in long sighs and feeling relief. Acetylcholine—responsible for energy renewal, recovery from pressure, learning, and memory—drives that.  Signature feeling:  balance.

Humans are not evolving as quickly as the pace of change, yet that pace is accelerating, leaving many of us struggling to meet, let alone exceed, expectations.


We all know an adrenalin rush—increased heart rate/blood flow in survival situations and energy and strength to facilitate immediate action. However, adrenalin can also increase nervousness, making it difficult to communicate effectively. Signature feelings:  fear or excitement.


Worry, anxiety, impatience, anger, often believing you or others are to blame, are all high cortisol speaking. In today’s demanding environment, cortisol is rising. The positive effects of cortisol keep us alive. However, sustained periods of pressure increase cortisol, leading to underperformance and poor decision-making.  Signature feeling:  anxiety.


The high-performance chemical, DHEA supports vitality, longevity, stamina, memory, and responsiveness, as well as cognitive, immune system, and heart–brain function. DHEA levels drop after 30—accelerated by stress and high cortisol—leading to premature aging. Improving our capacity to perform under pressure slows the aging process. Signature feeling:  vitality.

Patricia Peyton is co-author of Physical Intelligence


Have you ever felt disappointment (missing those concert tickets or that promotion)? Lack of expected reward is a lack of dopamine—the great motivator. When we get it, we want more—think binge-watching television programs and eating all of the crisps. Dopamine impacts goal orientation and engaging people in change. Signature feelings:  pleasure and need.


Think of a time when you liked being somewhere…felt safe and included. That’s oxytocin, whose levels fluctuate based on whether we are in the ‘in’ or ‘out’ group…feel safe or threatened. Oxytocin facilitates social bonding and feeling responsibility to others. Too much and we may be overly dependent on others. Too little and we may not build relationships or use networks for support. Signature feeling:  belonging.


Serotonin influences happiness, status, satisfaction, and well-being. We believe that we are enough, have enough. Serotonin is important for the immune system and deep-seated confidence. High cortisol will drain serotonin levels until depression sets in. Signature feeling:  happiness.


Testosterone (along with dopamine) drives our desire to achieve and compete, enables risk tolerance and confidence, and is vital for empowerment. Too much and we become overly confident, arrogant, do not prepare well or work well on a team.  Too little and we become risk-averse and avoid competition. Signature feelings:  power and control.

The more we understand the neuroscience that underpins our behaviour, the more we can strategically manage the balance of our own winning cocktail.

There are over 100 physical intelligence techniques we can use to strategically manage the balance of these eight key chemicals. To get you started, here are a few that will help you manage your chemical balance and enhance your leadership performance in 10 key areas: