1: Are we showing up as high-performance leaders? Or low-performance leaders?
The answer, according to Dr. Danny Friedland, has to do with which part of the brain we are accessing.
“The state of reactivity associated with low-performance leadership generally includes the more reflexive and inflexible patterns of behavior influenced by the lower, survival-oriented regions of the brain, which are focused on self-preservation or self-gain,” he writes in Leading Well from Within.
“Although there are a number of ways to describe the organizational structure of the brain, and despite the controversies around specific aspects of the model, one of the simplest and most helpful concepts to provide a basic understanding of the brain is that of the triune brain,” Danny writes. “This organizational framework was developed in the 1960s by Dr. Paul MacLean, a physician, neuroscientist, and former director of the Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health.”
Paul’s choice of the word “triune” suggests we have three brains in one. He proposed an evolutionary model of the brain in which more recent and complex levels of brain development have been layered on earlier, more primitive structures. In essence, the brain has developed from the bottom up and from the back forward.
According to Paul, the first part of the triune brain to develop was the reptilian brain which is critical to our most primitive survival needs. It includes the brain stem and the basal ganglia. The brain stem controls respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate. It is also involved in defensive “fight-or-flight” behaviors.
The basal ganglia drive how we move and form habits, directing motivation, reward, and pleasure as well as cravings and addiction.
2: The second evolution of the triune brain involved the creation of the limbic system, which engages our primal drives, especially related to feeding, sex, and bonding in intimate relationships. “Now, unlike reptiles that lay their eggs and skedaddle, we mammals do something different. We suckle and nurture our young,” writes Danny.
The limbic system includes the hippocampus, which helps regulate our emotions and our long-term memory, as well as the amygdala, which is primarily responsible for keeping us safe. The amygdala is connected to our fear, threat, and reward circuits. It’s constantly scanning our environment, asking: “Am I safe or not safe? Is this person or event a reward or a threat?” writes Danny. It has a “hair trigger” for threatening experiences and prompts us to be on the lookout for problems or danger rather than savoring life’s joyful moments.
The big takeaway?
“While these subconscious regions of our brain developed to protect us from physical harm, they may also be responsible for some of the low-performance leadership qualities described above, where we may become highly controlling, protective, or overly compliant,” observes Danny.
3: The neocortex is the third and final part of the triune brain. It wraps over the top of the reptilian brain and limbic system. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of the neocortex which regulates and integrates information from all other parts of the brain.
“The PFC has a number of very important functions,” writes Danny. It drives our “capacity for social awareness, empathy, compassion, and morality. The PFC is also involved in [our] short-term memory, executive functions, judgment, planning, abstraction, decision making,” as well as the willpower to follow through on the decisions we make. It also enables meta-cognition, where we “can step back and observe the thoughts, sensations, and feelings passing through [our] awareness.”
The PFC allows us to pause before we act. And it drives many of our abilities related to high-performance, including our ability to set goals, make good decisions and follow through to achieve our desired outcome, connect with others, and maintain self-awareness and self-composure when life gets stressful.
The good news? And the bad news? As humans, the lower levels of the brain work at far greater processing speeds than the neocortex. “When sensory information reaches [our] brain, it is first filtered through [our] brain stem and limbic system, which are always reflecting on the most basic of questions: “Can I eat it, will it eat me, and can I have sex with it?”
This serves us well if we are being chased by a saber tooth tiger. Not so well when we overreact when someone cuts us off in traffic or are triggered when our spouse says something that makes us angry. When we experience fear, threat, or stress, our brain’s lower, survival-oriented regions automatically spring into action.
What does all this have to do with leadership and life?
A lot. As leaders, when we create a safe environment, our colleagues can access the higher levels of their brains and show up differently. When we feel safe and trust others, we are more likely to cooperate, share ideas, strategize about the future, and follow through and achieve our goals.
When we have access to our PFC, we feel better, act with integrity, behave more courageously, and naturally relate well with others.
Reflection: Consider a recent time when I was triggered by something someone said or did. How did I react? Would I respond differently knowing what I know now?
Action: Journal about it.