Reactive leaders focus on protecting their egos by being overly controlling. Or by being overly compliant.
“In the protecting dimension, leaders take ‘flight’ by ‘moving away’ from others,” Dr. Danny Friedland writes in Leading Well from Within. “These leaders can appear inaccessible, aloof, emotionally distant, and uncaring. At the same time, they can also fight to prove self-worth with arrogance, intellectual domination, cynicism, and being highly judgmental and critical of others.”
Another dimension of reactive leadership is being overly compliant, another form of “fight” behavior. “They ‘move toward’ people, fighting for their approval to gain a sense of self-worth and security,” Danny notes. “Often, it is at the expense of what they really want. . . These leaders are driven to please others in order to be liked and accepted.”
This is what can happen when the more primitive, limbic system of our brain takes over. Adrenaline is released, which revs us up. Danny likens it to “stepping on a car’s accelerator,” which prepares us to flee or fight. When we feel we can’t handle the challenge, we feel overwhelmed or stressed out.
Our brains are “predictive machines,” writes Danny. “Much of the simulations we run are fear-based, ‘what if’, worst-case, danger scenarios that can provoke a fair amount of anxiety, which activates our survival brain.”
There is another option. Instead of fight or flight, we can access our “challenge-response.”
Through conscious awareness. We intentionally pause before we respond. Doing so engages the more evolved Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) part of our brain. We access higher-level processes such as insight, intuition, empathy, and morality. We “see the big picture to make better decisions, and take wiser action—all of which are key to [our] creative, high-performance leadership state,” Danny writes.
By being aware and paying attention to our thoughts, “we marshal internal and external resources to meet the demands we face,” writes Danny. We can choose to see stress as a provider of energy rather than as a debilitating force.
We can “train our brain” through deliberate practice. Our brains are moldable. This neuroplasticity gives us the power to rewire our own brains through the thoughts we have. “Just like working out in the gym builds muscle, certain ways of thinking can strengthen [our] brain, especially the circuits in important areas of your neocortex,” Danny notes.
“People train many hours to prepare for emergency situations and to develop mastery in any endeavor, in order to hardwire their skills into their subcortical basal ganglia,” writes Danny. “This way, when they find themselves in the moment of stress or challenge, they may react both rapidly and skillfully in the heat of the moment.”
The foundation is conscious awareness. “Conscious awareness enables [us] to notice the thoughts and feelings [we’re] having in any given moment, as well as to more skillfully focus [our] attention on anything [we] choose,” Danny writes.
Where we focus our attention ultimately drives our effectiveness as leaders and the impact we have on those around us.
Fortunately, there is a practice that empowers your conscious awareness. It’s known as mindfulness.
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: Look into or strengthen my mindfulness practice.