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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Emotional and Social Intelligence for Leaders


Daniel Goleman, nationally known psychologist and author of books on emotional and social intelligence, spoke at Google’s headquarters on the topic. He explained that our primitive brain, the amygdala (walnut sized and positioned about mid-brain) acts as the brain’s sentinel as it scans incoming sensory data to see if what’s perceived is a threat. In more primitive days, it sent the signal to the brain: “Do I eat it or does it eat me!” It’s a hair trigger, and excites the HPA Axis (Hypothalamus, Pituitary Gland and Adrenal Cortex System), which activates fight, flight, or freeze activity. The autonomic nervous system gets activated and stimulates the heart rate, blood pressure and hormones. An “amygdala hijack” sometimes occurs and is characterized by a sudden urge to strike out (verbally, physically or by e-mail!) without thinking—that we regret later. It happens to even the smartest of people because when the amygdala takes over the brain, we get dumb and react without thinking, which can cause many interpersonal upsets in relationships.

When activated by an outside stimulus, the amygdala sends a message to the Pre-Frontal Cortex, which is the both the integrator and regulator for emotions. Acting as a regulator, this higher road of the brain assesses the stimulus sent gushing into it from the amygdala and determines whether it should shut down the amygdala or agree with it and allow the body to prepare for the onslaught. Essentially, it regulates our appropriately personal and social responses to any situation.


Good leaders, it seems, have at least four characteristics to help them cope with the world. Two (self awareness and managing emotions) deal with the emotional intelligence of the individual leader and his or her ability to deal with the world. Two others (humor and rapport) deal with social intelligence or being in sync with others.

Emotional Intelligence:

Self awareness—good for personal and business decision making. Self unaware people and leaders tend to chronically handicapped by not being able to control the amygdala make poorer choices. Such people have diminished cognitive capacity because, especially in amygdala hijacks, the brain only focuses on the threat and can do little else.

Managing emotions—disturbing bad emotions that get in the way of both rational thought and decision making—and ultimately human motivation to do this or that. If you can’t inhibit the amygdala, you’ll have problems making good decisions.

NOTE: When the HPA axis (hormones) are low—you are bored. However, a certain amount of stimulation and motivation (like a deadline, etc.) the more cordisol secreted (HPA) and performance goes up and at an optimal level—and we end up in a state called FLOW—brain state attention fully focused, your skills challenged, and it feels really good. Feeling good is key indicator for optimal cognitive function. But, too much HPA activity—too much stimulus—you feel FRAZZLED. Adrenalin rushes in and takes over—you’re preoccupied and cannot function rationally or at your highest levels.

Social Intelligence

Social brain theory—what happens when two or more people connect mentally and get attune to the internal state of others. Mirror neurons…discovered by Italian scientists mapping neurons when monkey raised its arm. One day they noticed that the arm raising cell fired when monkey not doing anything…except when the researcher ate ice cream…monkey’s brain fired. Social brain operates unconsciously. Social brain knows when a conversation is over, or another is angry…mirror neurons sense the state. There’s emotional subtext.

Humor: Top leaders laughed three times more than other leaders. Mirror neurons seem to be at work here in a brain-to-brain humor dance. And top leaders seem to get how this works and use it effectively.

Rapport: Physiology of two people in rapport…if rapport is off physiology, is independent and unaligned. But when in sync, rapport results and both are in full attention, non-verbals choreographed, and if feels good.

Meditation (based on studies) has been found to be a way to develop the Pre-Frontal Cortex. Meditation strengthens this regulation part of the brain so you can build capacity to control amygdala hijacks, and when we meet with stress. The story of the experiment with a meditative monk and the confrontational professor is worth listening to. The monk was so calm in the debate that he actually calmed down the professor (both were wired for physiological measurement). So, if we can develop and strengthen the controlling section (left side) of the Pre-Frontal Cortex through meditation—we can spread calm and rationality.

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