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The biology of leadership

Your questions answered about HRV

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Leaders today need boundless supplies of energy if they want to shape their future, deliver on their ambition and realise their purpose.  Making the right strategic choices also requires them to be clear thinking and coherent.  The latter is more about the quality of their energy than the amount of energy available to them.

This is why we have been tracking the biology of leaders during a normal working day using heart rate variability (HRV) technology for more than 20 years.  By measuring a leader’s biology before and after a coaching intervention we can demonstrate objective improvements in a whole range of biological phenomena, many of which underpin a leader’s ability to deliver improved results.  We can quantify the amount of energy a leader has as well as the quality of that energy.

Our HRV white paper gives more details of this approach and summarises some of the scientific evidence for HRV, but some questions remain.  In this blog, we’ve provided answers to some of the commonest questions we receive from clients and students alike.


If you have a 24-hour HRV assessment on a really ‘bad’ day, are the results irrelevant to your normal day-to-day life?

Measuring an individual’s HRV for 24-hours is a little like taking a chest x-ray.  A lot of the data relates to what has been going on over the previous few months rather than the actual day on which the data is measured.  Thus a 24-hour HRV recording can reveal how coherent a leader is in the morning meeting versus the afternoon meeting.  Obviously, such insights are specific to that day, but the 24-hour recording can also reveal whether a leader has too much or too little adrenaline in their system.  Such a finding is independent of which day the heart rate monitor is worn.  Approximately 80% of the data we can generate from a 24-hour recording provides insights into the underlying patterns in a leader’s physiology and are therefore independent of the day on which the recording takes place.


How can you get so much information from just analysing a heartbeat? Can you really tell how long someone will live and how clearly they think?

HRV has become a much more widely studied parameter in medical and scientific circles over the last ten years because it is such a powerful metric.  In tracking the performance of a complex system, like a human being, the ideal metric is one that is sensitive to changes in your life. Not so sensitive that the tiniest fluctuation in life circumstances cause a massive convulsion in that metric and not so insensitive that it takes an earthquake to create a discernible change in the metric. Thus, skin conductance or ‘sweatiness’ is probably too variable and most hormonal measures are too invariable. Heart rate variability is just about perfect.  There are many research studies that correlate HRV with mortality and morbidity.  We can therefore use HRV to quantify your risk.  HRV will not tell you how clearly you think but we have seen over the last twenty years that someone who has a chaotic HRV pattern tends to be less perceptive, whereas someone who is more coherent often reports that they are more clear thinking and make better decisions.


How is HRV related to blood pressure?

The relationship between HRV and blood pressure is a complex one and varies significantly in different individuals so it is difficult to generalise.  Each individual’s cardiovascular control mechanisms vary.  For example, in some people breathing can significantly change heart rate.  In other people, breathing has less of an effect on heart rate and HRV.  Similarly, some people’s heart rate and HRV is closely coupled to changes in blood pressure, in others less so.  But there are many other variables also involved in this relationship such as blood volume, ejection fraction, cardiac motility, adrenaline levels and so on.  Having said all that, over the years we have noticed a relationship between Low Frequency (LF) and Very Low Frequency (VLF) changes in HRV and the evolution of high blood pressure.  In short, VLF often rises in the early stages of hypertension.  This is then followed by a drop in VLF and a consequent rise in LF. LF eventually falls as the hypertension progresses.  This observation is anecdotal and unpublished. It is not a formal research finding.


Is poor coherence a precursor to high blood pressure?

We are not aware of any published literature or evidence linking coherence and blood pressure.  However, we do believe there is a link between coherence and HRV, and HRV and blood pressure.  We often see low levels of coherence in people whose HRV deteriorates faster than would be expected.  And poor HRV has been repeatedly correlated with high blood pressure.  Encouragingly there is some research to suggest that high coherence can improve HRV.  Since it is possible to increase coherence and HRV through rhythmic breathing and rhythmic breathing has also been shown to improve blood pressure, coherence may be the mechanism through which breathing improves blood pressure.


How long will it take for my HRV data to improve (and for me to become more coherent) when I start working on the techniques you teach?

When we measure an individual’s HRV we normally do not retest their HRV again for three months.  This is because it takes at least six weeks to see a significant improvement in HRV.  After three months, any gains should be quantifiable.  The HRV whitepaper has shown that people can significantly improve their HRV and effectively ‘wind the clock back’, regaining the physiology they had eight to ten years earlier.  In some people, we have seen incredible improvements in HRV in six months.  If these techniques were a tablet it would make front page news!


We’d love to hear from you if you have any further questions or would like to find out about having your own 24-hour HRV assessment.

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