I am aware of the correlation between the lack of oxygen and impaired brain function. I experienced that first hand in army flight school when they put us in the hypobaric chamber to simulate the effects of high altitude. We started the ascent with pressure breathing on oxygen until the instructor gave the command to remove our mask at about 30,000 feet. While the amount of oxygen remains fairly constant at this altitude, the pressure of the atmosphere decreases rapidly the higher you go, which causes hypoxia or lack of oxygen in the body. At 30,000 feet you have only a few minutes to find more oxygen with a mask or by descending below 10,000 feet before you become incapacitated. When your brain is starved of oxygen you can experience a variety of symptoms including a panic attack, dizziness, blackout, tunnel vision and euphoria (watch a YouTube video of pilots going through the chamber training). I was given the child’s game of putting the shaped pegs in the matching holes. As I removed my mask I very quickly began to stare at the wooden peg in my hand and smiled euphorically. At that altitude I couldn’t finish one piece of that simple game in spite of the fact that I was a highly educated, screened and trained pilot candidate for the army. My wife was able to watch from outside the chamber at my infantile behavior and later described it to me in ego-crushing detail.
I was reminded of this experience when I read a great article in the Wall Street Journal this week about the effects of power and authority on leaders. It seems that the higher your position and authority the worse your brain functions. Humans in positions of power tend to have an impaired orbitofrontal cortex, which regulates empathy and decision-making ability. They also act more impulsively and can be reckless. These are not qualities that you want in someone who is making major borrowing or strategic decisions. I see how this could also affect a husband or wife who controls most or all a family’s money causing devastating financial consequences.
So how can you make great borrowing decisions if you breathe the rarified air of power and authority? First recognize that humans with power have a tendency to see what they want to see instead of what the facts clearly show. Then, take that awareness and surround yourself with people smarter than you whom you trust to tell you the whole truth. Third, descend from your lofty position in the decision making process to get some perspective from people at lower elevations who are closer to the core issues. Then you’ll see clearly to make the right borrowing decision for your organization.