Leading With the Brain in Mind

Leading others can be daunting. Over the last couple years, I have partnered with the CATDC to offer programs that help independent school leaders understand our neurobiological hardwiring and the essential role it plays in creating environments where staff and schools can thrive.

As a school leader, you want to create a space that encourages everyone to bring the best of themselves to their work. But what conditions are necessary to create these types of environments?

Leadership and the Amygdala

As we know, when we are afraid, we don’t typically operate as our best selves. We co-escalate, wall up, or shut down. If we disregard the amygdala’s role (the fight, flight, or freeze part of our brain) in stressful interactions, then we set ourselves and others up to fail. I’ve heard leaders say things like, “People should not be so sensitive,” and “Staff just need to do what they are paid to do.” One of the dangers of these stories is they can create a justification for why we feel it is okay to be curt or punishing. In professional settings it is easy to forget that we are emotional beings, hardwired to act without thinking when we feel attacked.

I often share this chart with school leaders (Adult Brain Systems in Escalation), to help them better notice the state of escalation occurring in stressful situations, giving them the option to de-escalate instead of co-escalate. While we can’t control someone else’s reaction, we can work to create work environments that reduce triggers and facilitate predictability and autonomy, both of which are reassuring and empowering. We can also be aware of what state our own brains are in, and avoid reacting from a state where our amygdala is hijacked.

Adult Brain Systems in Escalation

  Calm Alert Alarm Fear Terror
NeocortexSubcortex Limbic Midbrain/
Lost sense of

Adult 8-15
3-8 yrs 1-3 yrs Newborn-
1 yr
Talk, listeningEngagement/

Source: http://childtrauma.org/

Taking Responsibility

I’ve worked with teams to support staff through a multitude of challenging scenarios; whether it was following a major emergency, massive layoffs, or a community trauma, I am always reminded that we are all struggling on some level with feeling safe, good enough, connected enough, capable enough, intelligent enough and/or believing we belong. It isn’t your job as a school leader to navigate every person’s insecurities or every trigger, but I do think it is our job to be aware they exist, and to operate with empathy, patience, and understanding.

Every time we have ever felt hurt, betrayed, or afraid is stored in the amygdala, ready to be triggered at any given moment. If you are in a state of alarm, my insistence that the meeting continue, or my point gets made is not only likely to be unfruitful, it may do real damage to our relationship. This is not only in roles of supervision, but any relationship in our lives can be adversely affected when we operate from our hijacked brain.

I think it can be easy to forget that when we hold positional power or sit in a place of privilege we have additional responsibility to own our impact on those we supervise, whatever our  intention. The people we supervise may always consciously or subconsciously be afraid that at any moment we leverage our authority to take away their job, and with it their livelihood, their identity, their connection to community, their purpose. These do not have to be rational fears to impact someone’s experience. If I am a perceived threat to an employee, the amygdala brain will be on alert as a result of mistrust or fear.

Building Relationships

So what to do about that? This school leader gig would definitely be way easier if we could just tell people what to do and they did it. But true leadership is not about authority or power; it is about connection and relationships. The invitation when we  take on the role of a “leader” is to spend our time cultivating trust, demonstrating curiosity and humility, and modeling vulnerability to create space for others to do the same. In doing so we learn skills and build capacities that help us in all of our relationships in and outside of work.

The next time we are frustrated with an employee or colleague, before reacting from our own amygdala hijack, we can ask ourselves, “What might this person be afraid of?” If that question can provoke self-reflection and empathy, we will be less likely to respond from a place of judgement or authority. And as a result, more likely be a curious, compassionate, and collaborative leader, creating a supportive environment for those we lead.

Kate Sheppard’s work focuses on helping non-profit and human-service organizations develop leadership, evaluate and articulate impact, and synchronize their actions and ideologies. Kate has expertise in coaching and developing staff, program innovation, program management and evaluation, risk management, fundraising and community development, membership and customer service, volunteer development, qualitative assessment, strategic planning, goal setting, diversity and inclusion practices, time management, and leading organizational change teams.

Leave a Comment