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Education and Career

Taming Your Leadership Lizard Brain

As humans, our brains are hard-wired for the status quo. We crave predictability. It makes us feel safe. But when predictability is replaced with the unknown—even if the unknown is a new and exciting possibility—we get uncomfortable. And when predictability is replaced with outright chaos and uncertainty, we get frustrated and flat-out hostile. Even if you’re one of those people who “thrives on change,” there is a point at which change, the glimpse of the new, awakens your lizard brain.

Our lizard brain is the part of the brain that’s kept us alive as a species. It rules our response to unpredictability and the danger it might create. Located deep within the brain stem, the lizard brain (which functions the same way in humans as it does in a gecko), controls our breathing, heart rate, sleeping, and waking. It serves as a gateway to important areas of the brain that facilitate our survival, and to the feelings, memories, and profound thoughts that make us uniquely human.

When we’re faced with a crisis, an argument, or any amount of uncertainty, our lizard brain wakes up with a vengeance, flooding our system with chemicals that put us in a state of “fight or flight.” When our lizard brain is in charge, access to the thinking, rational part of our brain is literally cut off. This explains why, ten minutes after a stressful situation, we can finally think of a solution or the exact right thing to say.

Whether we like it or not, this primal lizardlike process takes over even if you’re an experienced, high-powered leader or CEO.

Have you ever caught yourself saying, “What the heck do you mean!?” or “This is the first I’ve heard of it” or “Well, that may be how it looks from your perspective, but not from mine.” You probably felt defensive, or wanted to put up a fight. That’s your lizard brain in action.

So, how do you stop your lizard brain’s reaction and accelerate access to the thinking part of your brain? It’s easier than you think: 

1) Take and deep breath and count to ten.

As a leader, if you want to respond to people well, if you want to make bold decisions and be open to opportunity, then you need to get to the thinking part of your brain—fast. Before you do anything else, stop and take a deep breath. Count to ten. Breathe again.

It may sound incredibly simple, but pausing to take deep breaths helps to dissipate the flood of chemicals that have permeated your brain and cut off access to logic and reason. In less than 30 seconds, you’ll find more clarity about the situation you’re facing. After all, you can’t expect your employees or staff to follow you into the unknown if you’re not leading with the courage and conviction that’s only made possible when you access your entire brain.

 2) Embrace disequilibrium.

In any organization, new situations, decisions, and moving into the unknown automatically creates disequilibrium. Our past ways of understanding things are no longer directly relevant. We have to create entirely new frameworks to understand what we’re up against. We have to move past our lizard brain and expand our thinking.

Let’s say, as a native English speaker, you’re trying to learn Spanish. You have to learn new words for the words you already know, but you can apply the same letters and similar sounds from knowing English. By contrast, if you’re trying to learn Chinese, every character and sound are new. What you already know isn’t applicable. It requires something completely new and different.

Our brains find this very confusing and challenging. It puts us in a state of disequilibrium, where the learning curve is huge and exhilarating and scary all at the same time. A colleague of mine likens it to the rush you feel when you head down that first big hill on a roller coaster.

But learning happens when we’re in disequilibrium, when we’re headed down that roller coaster hill. Learning and change are about letting go of the status quo and taking the next step. If we’re not able to embrace that feeling of fear, exhilaration, excitement, and possibility, then we’re not going to be able to lead our company into its next phase.

 3) Hold the Tension of Opposites and Ask “What if…?”

For most leaders, a source of chaos and uncertainty comes from the tension of opposites: the acknowledgment that two things can be true at the same time. In many organizations, you’ll find this in the ever-present marketing/sales vs. engineering/product development dilemma. As the leader, you’re in the position to take seemingly opposing points of view and mold them into a working whole. The tension between departments, employee needs, and company goals can kick your lizard brain into overtime.

Instead of succumbing to the chaos, you can introduce new possibilities into the conversation by asking “what if” questions, like: “What if we were able to meet the needs of marketing/sales and engineering/product development and build relationships with customers that inspire them to tell everyone in our industry how great we are?” That’s a much more interesting and exciting conversation than, “How can we meet the needs of both marketing/sales and engineering/product development?”

If you want to build a company where everyone is working for the good of the larger whole, where everyone is encouraged to make a meaningful contribution to the company’s success, where customers become inspired advocates for your brand, then painting a picture of those aspirations and bringing them into the conversation can effectively call out the best in each of the players involved. Offering “what ifs” instantly makes space for possibilities. It challenges everyone involved to ditch their own lizard-brain reactions, and to think differently.


Leslie Peters is the author of Finding Time to Lead: Seven Practices to Unleash Outrageous Potential (2018).  Read more about the book here.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Education and Career - Taming Your Leadership Lizard Brain
Leslie Peters
Leslie Peters is the Founder, CEO, and Chief Facilitator at Elements Partnership, a consulting practice that helps people and organizations get unstuck, and is the author of Finding Time to Lead: Seven Practices to Unleash Outrageous Potential (2018).