Where Neuroscience Meets Leadership

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Author Steve Rush explains how good leadership has an understanding of the flight-or-flight response.

During the time I developed my coaching and leadership capability, I was often confused when, unintentionally I provoked a response in somebody that I hadn’t anticipated. That was until I discovered that science could play an invaluable role in the way I led my team and provided feedback to others.

Neuroscience now plays a significant role in my teaching and coaching. If I’m able to understand the reasons people react in differing circumstances, I am more likely to deliver a satisfactory and productive outcome for all involved.

So what is it that causes some people to react more favorably than others? The answer lay in the way our brains are constructed and how that triggers a response in us.

Over the last 40000 years as we evolved from a species of hunters to more of farmer gatherers and developers and parts of our brains have evolved too. As we developed our thinking and logical approach to problem solving, our pre-frontal cortex developed; this part of the brain supports our sensory perception, conscious thinking and logic; often referred to as the executive brain. This part of the brain helps us rationalise things and make conscious sense of the world. The older and less well evolved part of the brain is called the mammalian brain and often referred to the emotional brain; this has all of the emotional trappings that our ancestors once had and remains core to our emotional behavior today.

Central to your emotional brain is the amygdala. This is a structure in the part of the brain called limbic system and linked to emotions and aggression. The amygdala functions to control fear responses, the secretion of hormones, arousal and the formation of emotional memories. Many researchers found that the amygdala plays an important role in emotional learning by helping to store neuro pathways or memories.

When we feel threatened or in fear; a threat response kicks the amygdala and hormones into action and you are likely to get one of three naturally occurring responses:  flight, flight or freeze.

Most commonly referred to as fight-or-flight, this response prepares the body to either fight or flee the threat and occasionally freeze.  As the body naturally starts to prepare itself for either fighting or flight the blood in your pre-frontal cortex reduces and travels to your muscles in your legs, arms and other parts of the body and as such impacts on your cognitive function.  At the same time as the amygdala releases its hormones, the stressful response can often appear irrational and over emotive (That’s what our ancestors used to flee wild animals or indeed fight them).  This response can be triggered by real and imaginary threats, so even something as poorly delivered criticism could trigger a threat response. So, why as a leader should I be aware of this in my approach to leadership? Well; if you minimise the threat response, you deal more with logic rather than emotion. That helps you form actions and conscious planning to any problem rather than irrational emotional behavior. Here are my top tips to avoid the treat response with your team:

Possible Threat Trigger Strategy
Uncertainty about the future or their existence Provide clarity and context as to what the future holds
New team members or changing teams Develop trust, affinity and relationships
Perceptions of inequality within your team Transparent communication – open door policy
The team members status is threatened Reassure them with positive feedback and evidence
They have a change in their authority level/ control Discover what autonomy can be developed with them


It’s unlikely that you will avoid a threat response totally. We are all human and we all have an amygdala ready to act on any perceived threat. The conscious leader however can use this insight from neuroscience to help reduce the emotional impact their own behavior and actions has on their team and subsequently as a leader you have a more mature and logical approach to outcomes.


Steve Rush

Steve Rush is an author and leadership expert whose career spans global firms generating multimillion-pound revenues. He is the author of “Leadership Cake,” which combines his expertise and leadership lessons into a fresh perspective on leadership success. Live testing of “Leadership Cake” with leaders in both the U.K. and the U.S. inspired Rush to share the philosophy on the global stage. For more information, visit www.leadershipcake.com.

Rush is also Chief Executive Officer of Improov Consulting, a leadership, management and training consultancy based in Vale of Glamorgan near Cardiff, South Wales, U.K. It provides solutions tailored to ever-changing businesses and individual needs in the areas of learning and development; sales skills and buying models; sales leadership; relationship management; marketing; personal effectiveness and change management; communications skills; and financial services exam training. For more information, visit www.improovconsulting.com.

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