Brain science and bad leaders

Lately I have been reflecting a lot on leadership- what makes good leaders and what makes poor leaders. As traits of both types become apparent, I sought examples on the macro and meta levels. That lead me to delving into the brain science of leadership.

Currently, I have a front row seat to observing a really bad leader. I am keenly aware that we often only know what we see and what’s really going on inside the person, driving the actions (and in this case inaction) is really observable, even to the person. I mean, how often do you really know why you do some of the things you do? Those roots driving behavior often run very deep and, thus, are subconscious, possibly even unconscious.

The science

When you work for a bad leader, every time they make you feel left out, overlooked, betrayed or every time they degrade, reprimand, use that particular tone your brain experiences a neural response that is as powerful as a physical injury (think dropping a weigh on your foot). You brain indexes that in the category of “minimize threat, maximize reward” and you give a little less than your all moving forward.


Think about this for a second. If you shut down a little more and a little more each time, you start creating some beliefs around that situation all stemming from, “If I show up fully, I won’t be rewarded and it’s not worth it.” Those beliefs drive your actions. Meanwhile, the part of your brain focused on security tells you to suck it up and keep the paychecks coming in. With each subsequent let down from your boss, you erode more and more of your willingness to be great. Like an unused muscle, your willingness to show up fully will atrophy with time.

I am willing to hypothesize that these poor leaders have experienced their own disconnection, created their own self-limiting beliefs that have led to bad behavior. The emotional intelligence is stunted. Hurt people hurt; they hurt themselves, others, and often both.

The bigger picture

What if it isn’t your boss that is creating that neural response? What if it is a parent or significant other? What if it is a whole community? What if it is even larger than that?

When we consider all the places poor leadership can affect the negative neural response of the people being lead, it is easy to see why so many people are disconnected to their own personal greatness and ability to access and use it. For me, it’s easy to see why so many people are trying to numb their pain through alcohol, drugs, gaming, sex, food, tv (oh, the list could go on). But what is that really doing? It’s certainly not fixing, let alone addressing the real problem.

We need healing. We need to reconnect to our inner truth, remember who we really are and what we are capable of so that we can start showing up fully. We need more love, acceptance, encouragement, kindness. We need to be willing to stand up, set healthy boundaries when we feel that sting of dismissal.

Some tools that have help me tremendously in this process are yoga, nonviolent communication, meditation, and shifting perspective (that took some help). There are many, many tools available for this journey. The most powerful two of all, though, are awareness (knowing how you feel) and willingness to change/heal/shift.

I love working with people to craft a healing practice to help them reconnect to their greatness. It’s priceless to me to witness the ah-ha moments, followed by conscious shifts in thoughts and behaviors. The results are extraordinary. I call the process cross-training for prosperity.

Pay attention to how you feel today, particularly around leaders. Notice if you’re giving your all or shutting down. If you are a leader, pay attention to how your employees (or even your children) react to you. Consciously shift to a kinder tone, a more open attitude, really listen, and see what shifts. And if you find you need some help, reach out and let’s talk!