Attack of the Amygdala!

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Here is little bit of neuroscience that every leader should know: deep inside your brain resides a very important mass of nuclei called the amygdala. It is this portion of the brain that generates some of your strongest emotional responses, namely fear and anger.

When was the last time you were so nervous that your hands got sweaty and your heart began to race? When did you last get so angry you raised your voice and said something that you would later regret? Did you feel like you were out of control? You were. In both cases, your amygdala was hijacking your brain and suppressing your rationality.

For early humans this portion of the brain was essential for survival. When something dangerous entered our environment it would trigger an immediate fight or flight response. Thinking rationally was not as important as an immediate and involuntary reaction. If you’ve ever stumbled across a bear in the wild or felt a strong ocean current begin to pull you out to sea, you’re familiar with the blind fear and automatic responses that the amygdala can produce. Today our world is much more complex. The amygdala that once served us so well can actually work against our best interests if we don’t understand it and learn to control it.

Becoming conscious of the fact that our amygdala can overpower the rest of our brain and generate explosive anger or crippling fear is half the battle. When these powerful emotions and the way they manifest themselves become less mysterious we are better able to understand and control them. A good leader can recognize emotions and be mindful of them.

The other half of the battle is changing our brain’s behavior. While the more cognitive parts of our brains can learn a concept or a fact once and retain it, the amygdala must be trained over time. Think of it as a muscle that needs to be flexed in order to become stronger. Training this portion of your brain requires three things that your leadership coach can help you with:

Practice repetition

You are trying to form a positive habit of recognizing, understanding, and managing your emotions. Every time you feel anxious or angry is an opportunity to train your brain.

Exercise discipline

Learning to understand and control your emotions is hard work, especially at the beginning. There are no shortcuts. You can’t choose to master your emotions one day and not the next.

 Find an example to follow

The amygdala learns by example. Find a role model or a mentor who is in tune with and exhibits great control over their emotions and spend time with them.

Our goal as leaders should not be to become a Spock-like, emotion-free logic machine. Emotions are important. But they don’t have to be the enemy of good decision making. In fact, emotions are critical for motivating us, helping us to prioritize what is important, and alerting us when someone is violating values that we care deeply about. When our emotions and rationality are working in tandem we are at our highest level of effectiveness.

“Shouting Manager” courtesy of imagerymajestic at

Lithograph showing amygdala from Grey’s Anatomy (public domain)

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