Train Your Brain to Be a Better Leader

Train Your Brain to Be a Better Leader

Read Time: 5 Minutes

Have you ever confronted an employee for a mistake only to regret your words, and then think of exactly what you should have said 20 minutes later? It’s frustrating, but your immediate response has to do with the way your brain works.


  • Misconceptions about emotional intelligence can keep you from having a strong executive presence.
  • Feelings of frustration and anger can cause your brain to react impulsively instead of thinking through a measured response.
  • Your brain can be hijacked. If you have no idea know how to mitigate this, it’s difficult to make smart decisions.

The good news is that by learning how the brain functions, you can counteract these challenges and make better, more thoughtful decisions.

Increasing Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is not about “touchy-feely” sentiments. It’s about understanding yourself and understanding the motivations of other people so that we respond to them, not react to them. It’s about being honest, but with grace.

Specifically, emotional intelligence includes three main competencies:

Self-awareness. An essential part of emotional intelligence is having an objective viewpoint of yourself. By being aware of your feelings, labeling them, and understanding them, you create a level of “emotional literacy” that gives you more control over your emotions and the way you respond to them.

  • Do you assess yourself the same way others see you in a realistic manner?
  • Are you aware of your own emotions?
  • Do you possess self-regard where you care for yourself with honor and have the optimism to move forward?

Emotional management. This relates to impulse control and adapting to chaotic situations. When you are aware of your feelings and can manage them accordingly in an authentic way, you increase your emotional intelligence.

  • How well do you manage your feelings so that you can accomplish tasks and handle the unexpected?
  • How do your emotions affect your personal drive?

Social connection. The final competency of emotional intelligence deals with empathy, communication, and coaching with a focus on understanding the ideas and opinions of others.

  • How well do you listen to others?
  • Do you try to understand their insights and advice?

These competencies may seem simple, but it can be very difficult to change lifelong habits, unless you understand what is happening in your brain.

The Brain Science of Emotional Intelligence

Emotions are just chemicals. They’re floods of chemicals and peptides. But emotions are also data. To make the best decisions, we need to understand data and make data-driven decisions. Emotions can cause us to step forward, step back, or stand still.

A part of your brain (referred to as the reptilian brain) is responsible for basic functions. You breathe without thinking about it. Your heart beats on its own. You react when someone throws a ball at your head.

Your IQ, consequential thinking, troubleshooting, working memory, and complex human thought reside in the prefrontal or neocortex.

Another part of the brain (referred to as the mammalian brain) contains the amygdala and is essentially the operating system where emotional memory (e.g., when a smell or taste brings up an emotional experience from the past) and emotional learning (e.g., parents praising your first steps as a baby) take place.

According to The Institute for Health and Human Potential, the mammalian brain has no IQ, but it’s “100 times faster” than your thinking brain and is responsible for the fight-flight-freeze response. The amygdala is essential for life, but because of its quick reaction time, it can also keep you from saying just the right thing at the right time.

When an emotion arises, your brain is hardwired to take over before you think, and chemicals are released into the bloodstream. Oxygen and blood are forced to different parts of our body to prepare for the pending threat so there is not enough left to support all your creative responses, and an emotional hijack occurs. That’s your mammalian brain — specifically, your amygdala — asserting itself.

In less than a millisecond, your working memory suddenly decreases, and you lose control. Depending on what you are feeling, research indicates that strong emotions can actually erode brain neurons, last 18 minutes, and cause toxicity to linger in your blood for three to four hours!

Stop the Emotional Hijack

You can stop emotional hijacking with a pattern interrupt following these steps:

  • Get oxygen back to the neocortex by counting to 10 with different songs that have names starting with a particular letter. You need an exercise that makes you think.
  • Breathe slowly through your nose and out through the mouth. This relaxes your shoulders (telling the amygdala you aren’t in danger) and changes your oxygen to something closer to nitrous oxide, which is laughing gas.
  • Think of something you are thankful for. The chemical makeup of appreciation causes the adrenaline and cortisol to be flushed out of your neocortex.
  • Ask questions so you don’t rush into judgment based on intense emotion.

For this process to work, you also need to be aware of your mannerisms and the “tells” of others before a hijack occurs. For example, do your hands shake, lips purse, eyes twitch, etc.?

Once you know the signs of a pending emotional hijack, you can use the seconds between the stimulus and the response to make a decision and respond rather than react. Then, you can use words in a soothing tone, provide more time to respond, and ask questions to help normalize the neocortex.

This takes practice, but it will help you convey your ideas and opinions effectively and prevent triggering an emotional hijack in your colleagues. After all, no one will hear you if their brain is emotionally hijacked.

Self-Awareness Is the Key to Hijack Management

Emotional intelligence is about understanding yourself and what motivates others so that you can respond, rather than react, in an honest, graceful way in any situation. It involves self-awareness, emotional management, and social connection.

When you understand how emotions affect you and others, and practice pattern interrupt skills, you can manage emotional hijacks and be a more successful leader.

About Deborah Monroe

Deborah is a published author and currently one of the first of 36 Master EQ Practitioners in the world through the Global EQ Community of 6 Seconds. She is also an associate with IOP (Institute for Organizational Performance) and a faculty member of HDI (the Help Desk Institute). Working with all levels of Executive Leadership, Management and Individual Contributors, Ms. Monroe concentrates on integrating humans and process for a balanced working environment. Her aim is to build understanding and empathy creating a positive bottom line through employee and customer retention. Executive and Personal Life Coaching remains one of Deborah’s areas of expertise. Her clientele range from the Entertainment Industry to Corporate environments.

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