Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why Leaders Need to Hug Their Reptilian Brain

Brainj0385807 According to a study of more than 100,000 executives, emotional intelligence is a better predictor of performance than technical skill, experience, or intellect. (1) As discussed in previous blogs, the four skills that can help you grow your emotional intelligence are:

I. Perceive your emotions. Emotions contain data. They are signals that tell us something is going on that we need to pay attention to it. The first step in being an emotionally intelligent leader is to be able to identify what emotions are occurring in ourselves and those around us.

II. Use your emotions. Researchers have shown that there are neurological links between how we feel and how we think. Emotions direct our attention to important events. We can try to ignore an emotion, but we are wired to have them influence our thinking and decision-making. Emotionally intelligent leaders use their emotions to help inform their thinking.

III. Understand your emotional future. One of the major reasons to grow our emotional intelligence is to be able to perform better - to produce outcomes that are more desirable. After taking the first two steps in this process, we are able to ask questions such as; What might happen if I choose option A? What’s the probable outcome if I try option B? Will option C really get me the result I desire?

IV. Regulate your emotions. Emotions are a feedback mechanism. The dictionary defines feedback as ‘information returned to the source.” Thus, emotions contain information for you. They are meant to help you manage your attention. If you do not stay open to this information and integrate it into your decisions and actions, you will miss an enormous amount of feedback necessary for effective leadership.

hugj0437801jpgLeaders who regulate their emotions have self-control, think clearly even when they are experiencing strong emotions, and make decisions using both their heart and their head. They also can "psych themselves and others up" or calm others down. This fosters an environment of trust, fairness, integrity, and openness to change. (2) That's because politics, infighting, and resistance to change decrease when employees know that they can speak their mind, and share their concerns about change, without the boss losing their temper. One of the best strategies to help you manage your emotions is to hug your limbic system.

Hug your reptilian brain. Emotions flow from the neurotransmitters of your brain’s limbic system, sometimes referred to in evolutionary terms as your reptilian brain. This is the seat of feelings, impulses, and drives, and the home to your fight or flight mechanism. It is your limbic system that hijacks your brain under stress. Your copilot, the analytical neocortex, is often gagged and bound when the heat is on. That’s why thinking clearly under pressure is often difficult.

To improve your capacity to regulate your emotions you must engage your reptilian brain in training. Listening to a lecture or reading (including this blog), which is how most leadership training is delivered, doesn't enhance emotional intelligence because the learning doesn't involve the limbic system. Practice does not make perfect; progressive practice, in simulated conditions of reality, makes perfect.

For example, I recently interviewed the CEO of a billion-dollar technology company about the emotional growth of one of his executives, whom I have been coaching for the last four months. The CEO stated that his executive was "a different guy" because of the dramatic improvements he had made in a very short period of time. The CEO asked me how I had done it. I told him that I had recruited the people that surrounded his executive to help me. Thus, the executive’s own peers and direct reports provided frequent, timely, accurate feedback from the trenches.

Of course, my ego likes to think that my weekly coaching sessions made a big difference. But I doubt it. My leadership coaching is successful because I involve the limbic system in progressive practice under real conditions. That’s where leaders learn to hug their reptilian brain. You should hug yours there too.

Keep eXpanding,


1. Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves; Heartless Bosses? Harvard Business Review, December 2005, 24.

2. Daniel Goleman; What Makes a Leader? Harvard Business Review, January 2004, 82 - 91.

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