Executive Function and Leadership

When first starting SMARTS with a new group of students, I’ll ask them, What is executive function?” Often a student will say that executive function is what a CEO does. Turns out they aren’t far from the truth!

Leigh Buchanan’s article,The 4 Brain Superpowers You Need to Be a Successful Leader, According to Neuroscience,” explains how executive function plays a crucial role in the success of business leaders.

Buchanan examines the work of Tara Swart, a neuroscientist, executive coach, and professor at MIT. Swart explores how research in neuroscience can explain what makes a successful CEO of a major company. The ‘four superpowers’ are:

  1. Neuroplasticity
  2. Brain agility
  3. Mindset mastery
  4. Simplicity


Executive function underlies most, if not all, of these superpowers. To have an agile brain, you must be able to think flexibly, shifting between perspectives and from main ideas to details. A mastery mindset, akin to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, relies on your ability to reflect on your performance, to learn from past mistakes, and to adopt new strategies as needed. And to achieve simplicity, you must have the ability to organize and prioritize your tasks, estimating your abilities and making decisions that simplify your day.

Swart engaged business executives in training programs designed to bolster these neuroscience ‘superpowers,’ but why wait until your students are white-collar professionals? You can use an executive function strategy curriculum, such as SMARTS, to help students build a strong foundation of superpowers so that they are prepared to be successful leaders in their adult lives.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director