Has Your Emotional Brain Hijacked your Leadership?

Great ministry leaders keep their emotions in check. Unfortunately, when we don’t keep them in check, our emotional brain can hijack clear thinking and good leadership. Yet, when we understand how our brain and emotions work, such insight can help us manage them in God honoring ways. Below I give a quick summary about the part of our brain that affects emotions.

Many parts of the brain influence our emotions, but the part I call the Panic Alarm (the limbic system, especially the amygdala) contributes the most. The word limbic means ‘edge’ and it got its name because it lies on the edge between the outer part of the brain and other important internal structures. Its primary structures include the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus. The Panic Alarm strongly influences our emotional system, sometimes called the X-system.

The amygdalae (I use the singular form amygdala) are two almond shaped structures that play a critical role in our emotions for several reasons. It’s constantly on the lookout for problems and receives sensory input from many other parts of the brain. It stores and catalogs emotional memories. And both the hippocampus and the amygdala are involved in memory, the former primarily for facts and the latter for emotions.

For example, your hippocampus helps you remember the names of your elder or deacon board members. The amygdala tells you which ones you like. Because the amygdala is so highly connected to other parts of the brain, when it gets overly activated (the Panic Alarm goes off) it can diminish clear thinking and diminish thoughtful leadership.

An external real or perceived threat (an angry board member), a memory (when we were called to appear before an emergency board meeting), imagining ourselves in a threatening situation, or ever anticipating a threat can incite our Panic Alarm. The flight-flight-freeze-appease response originates from here. It’s also vital in helping us form healthy emotional attachments, especially at an early age.

Another component of the limbic system, the hypothalamus, acts as a controller to the master hormone gland, the pituitary gland. When we’re under stress it releases the stress hormone cortisol into our blood stream and neurotransmitters into our brain. Our body reacts very quickly to the neurotransmitter release but slower to the hormonal release. And chronic stress can damage our body and even kill brain cells (neurons) in the hippocampus. However, since the hippocampus is one of the few structures that can grow neurons, called neurogenesis, when stress decreases and cortisol levels out, the brain can regrow neurons here.

Another significant part of the brain, the insula, also influences emotions, and informs the amygdala. It maps our body’s internal feelings by receiving continuous input from over 100 million neurons (Armour, 2004) that line our hollow organs like our heart and intestines. It takes this information and represents how we feel in relation to our outside environment. Intuition is affected by this so called ‘second brain’ (Hadhazy, 2010). It can give us a ‘gut’ feel, butterflies in our stomach, or a ‘heartfelt sense’ we sometimes feel about something or someone. It’s also finely tuned to feel disgust and to sense unfairness.

I believe God used my insula to help me make a difficult decision years ago. I had been leading a poorly performing staff member that I had hoped I could reform to fit our culture. I kept telling myself that I could change him. But nothing seemed to work. I thought I needed to release him but I just couldn’t seem to pull the trigger. However, one morning I woke up in the middle of the night and knew in my gut I had to release him. I believe the Holy Spirit used my insula to help me make that decision.

Although the Bible never uses the word brain, it often uses the word for bowels to refer to the deep interior of our heart, soul, and mind. Although the Biblical writers didn’t explicitly understand the inner workings of the brain, God gave them keen insight into how our bodies and brains actually worked in real life.

Has your emotional brain every hijacked your leadership? What has helped you keep your emotions in check?


“I just learned how my emotional brain can sometimes hijack my leadership.” (tweet this quote by clicking here).


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References:

Armour, J.A. (2004) Cardiac neuronal hierarchy in health and disease. American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 287 (2), pp.R262-R271.

Hadhazy, A. (2010) Think Twice: How the Gut’s ‘Second Brain’ Influences Mood and Well-Being: Scientific American [Internet]. Available from: <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=gut-second-brain> [Accessed 28 February 2013].

4 Weapons of Mass Distraction in a Leader’s Life

In Os Guiness’ excellent book, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, he used the phrase, ‘weapons of mass distraction,’ to describe how people today distract themselves to avoid facing their inconsistent and broken beliefs about God and eternal matters. He writes that while distraction may feel good in the short-term (we avoid the discomfort of inconsistent belief and behavior), it’s disastrous in the long-term. Mass distraction is also a fitting metaphor for how leaders sometimes get sidetracked from the business of leading. Ask yourself which of these four weapons of mass distraction divert you the most from leading at your best.

  1. Multi-tasking.
    • Sometimes we get lulled into thinking we can multi-task and get more done… keep email and text alerts on as we prepare a sermon (if you’re a pastor) or as you think through a critical strategy as a leader. We think that giving 90% effort to an important task and 10% effort to a distraction equals 100% of our effort. Actually, each time we shift from one task to another and then shift back, the sum total of our effort gets diluted. It never equals 100%. There is a cognitive cost. It’s called attention residue – it takes time for our minds to disengage from the distraction and get back on task. And, researchers have discovered that constantly emailing or texting temporarily decreases our IQ.
    • Solution: turn off your phone and automatic alerts.
  2. Continuous partial attention.
    • Linda Stone, a former VP at Microsoft coined the term. She describes it this way. “To pay continuous partial attention is to keep a top-level item in focus, and constantly scan the periphery in case something more important emerges.” As a result, this “always on” mode puts our brains on constant alert, thus flooding them with too much stress hormone which slows processing.
    • Solution: Schedule your best thinking time in a quiet, distraction free environments. I use a niche in my office that blocks me from seeing people pass by my office window.
  3. Dopamine addiction.
    • Dopamine is one of over 100 chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Simply put, a neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger the brain uses to send messages from one brain cell (a neuron) to the next. As a feel good neurotransmitter, it kicks in during activities that bring us pleasure – from checking off items on your to-do list to eating a bowl of triple-fudge marshmallow creme ice cream to seeing more ‘likes’ on your Facebook posts. It’s also involved in drug, alcohol, and sexual addition. Although we may not struggle with serious addictions like drug abuse, we can easily get sucked into social media dopamine addiction when we constantly check to see ‘what’s new’ or ‘who likes me’ on social media. When we see a ‘like’ or a funny cat video, we get a little shot of dopamine and we want more, so we keep surfing.
    • Solution: Set aside only certain times of the day when you surf social media. If you are hooked, go on a social media fast to break yourself from this addition.
  4. Striving to get to a next better moment.
    • This one is a bit more subtle but Blaise Pascal captures it in this saying. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” In other words, one weapon of mass distraction is the inability to be OK in this present moment. We’re often tempted to move to a next better moment to escape the current painful or boring moment thinking that if I just get to a better one, things will be better.
    • Solution: Try mindfulness practice, a scientifically based spiritual practice that helps you learn to live in the present moment. Learn more here about Christian mindfulness.

In our fast-paced, demanding world, weapons of mass distraction lurk around every corner. When we heed Peter’s command in God’s Word, we can counter those distractions.

1Peter 5.8   Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

Which of these weapons of mass distraction most tempt you? What would you add to this list?

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4 Spiritual Disciplines Pastors Often Neglect

The terms spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation have taken center stage in many churches and pastor conversations today. Essentially they refer to what we do to build healthy souls. And we all want that. They serve as means to an end, to become more like Jesus, not as ends in themselves. And the most common ones include Bible reading, fasting, and prayer. While I believe that most pastors somewhat regularly practice the main ones, I have a hunch that we may often unintentionally miss these four. As you read each one, ask yourself when you last practiced it.

  • Not having to have the last word.
    • Keith Meyer, pastor and author, tells a story about a student in one of Dallas Willard’s classes. At the end of one class a student rudely challenged him with a question. With Dallas’s keen mind he could have crushed him with an answer. Yet, he gently responded with, “Well, that’s a great question and a good time to end class.” After the class several angry and supportive students came up to him asked why he didn’t answer. He said, “I was practicing the discipline of not having to have the last word.”
  • Solitude for the extrovert and community for the introvert.
    • Introverts usually practice solitude easily yet may find it difficult to intentionally break their alone time to be with others. The opposite holds true for the extrovert. Silence and solitude can feel excruciating for an extrovert. Yet, often we need to do the opposite of what comes easy for the greatest impact on our souls.
  • Submission for a Type-A, high-D personality.
    • Both those descriptions reflect my personality. I like to be in charge and lead the way. It’s hard for me to take a back seat. Yet when I do so with a right heart, it counters the temptation to become prideful.
  • Confession.
    • No one likes to be wrong. Yet, when we do wrong, when we sin, Scripture tells us to confess it. It easier to confess it to God in private. It’s hard to confess it to others against whom we’ve sinned. Yet when we appropriately confess our sin to others, God gives us a deep sense of cleansing and peace in our souls.

What other disciplines do you see that pastors often miss?


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When Leaders Get Hooked on Being Right

You’ve been wrestling with a ministry challenge and you believe you’ve found the right answer. At the next board meeting you share your idea and one board member begins to voice opposition. Because you feel so strongly that you’re right you begin to raise your voice, talk faster, and talk over others who want to engage in the conversation. Tension escalates. Anger rises. You think, “How dare they think I’m wrong. I know I’m right.” What happens in those types of meetings? Why do they tend to go south? And what’s a leader to do when this happens more often than not? What do you do when you are hooked on being right?

hooked

If this has ever happened to you, a small almond shaped structure called the amygdala has hijacked your brain. Located deep inside our brains, it (there are actually two of them) causes our fight-fight-freeze-appease response to danger.

So when you felt threatened from a board member’s pushback, your emotional side takes over. And when that happens, the part of our brain that helps you think clearly, respond wisely, and listen carefully, the prefrontal cortex right behind your forehead, gets shut down. You react emotionally rather than thoughtfully. And when you get too pushy, you probably put the other people’s brains in the same fight-fight-freeze-appease mode which increases their resistance to your idea.

Unfortunately, many pastors and leaders get stuck in this unhealthy mode. They are driven to be right, avoid appearing wrong, or even appease others. As a result, too much of the stress hormone, cortisol, courses through their bodies and brains and puts them in a state of chronic stress. Too much cortisol over long periods of time harms our hearts, decreases our creativity and memory, and actually kills brain cells.

When that happens, what can we do?

  • Evaluate whether or not you are under chronic stress. If you often feel anxious, react easily, people-please too much, or have difficulty concentrating, your amygdala may be controlling you instead of the Holy Spirit. Your body may be telling you that you need a cortisol break. Ask a close friend or a counselor to help you determine if you’re under chronic stress. Even better, ask them if they feels like you always need to be right. Of course, you may not even need anyone to tell you that. You may already know it. A good dose of self-honesty will go a long way toward healing. If you are under chronic stress, create a plan to lessen your stress.
  • Remind yourself that God is in control. When the brain experiences uncertainty, (i.e., Will the board approve my idea?) it feels threatened. When we feel threatened, our emotional side driven by the amygdala tends to take over. Yet, God is the most certain Reality in the universe and He tells us to have faith in Him. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (Heb. 11.1, NIV) Even with the uncertainty that comes with leadership, we can rely on God’s steadfastness certainty and His Spirit can override our human tendency to become fearful when things seem uncertain.
  • Learn to listen more empathetically (i.e., when you present your idea to your board). Empathy, being able to step inside another’s shoes, is a key competency for successful pastors and leaders. One study even showed that empathetic doctors got sued less than non-empathetic ones (Ambady, 2002). It doesn’t mean that you don’t hold to your convictions. It does mean, however, that you try to listen with your heart. Empathy, kindness, and caring can actually help activate the trust hormone, oxytocin. When that happens, when others feel that you care and that you really listen, they will endear themselves more to you and to your leadership.

So, if you have to get hooked on something, don’t get hooked on being right about your ideas, but about being right with others and with the Lord.

What behaviors have you seen in leaders who are hooked on being right?

Here’s another great blog posting on the subject by Judith Glasser.

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References:

Ambady, N. (2002) Surgeons’ tone of voice: A clue to malpractice history. Available from: [Accessed 27 March 2013].

Your Conscience: Are you Neglecting It?

Recently I taught a Sunday morning message on the human conscience. Afterwards a seasoned Christian told me that in all his years he had never heard anybody talk about the conscience. As I reflected over my 45 years of following Christ, I, too, have never heard anyone speak about it. So, in this post I make the case for paying attention to our conscience, developing a healthy one, and if you are a pastor or teacher, teaching on it.

What is the conscience? We intuitively understand it as that part of us that reminds us when we do wrong. We use conscience in our vocabulary: he has no conscience, I had a guilty conscience, she has a clear conscience. The word conscience (suneidesis in Greek, a combination of two words: together + know) was one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite words. He used it over 20 times. Scripture records one of his most famous uses in Acts 24.16 when he stood in his own defense at a trial and said, “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.”

Conscience is akin to a moral compass. A conscience controlled by the Holy Spirit points the way that pleases God, although not perfectly for we are fallen creatures. I believe conscience works to our benefit in these three ways.

  1. Convict us when we have sinned. That is, the Holy Spirit uses it to cause the unpleasant sensations in our bodies when we feel guilt or remorse over sin.
  2. Commend us when do right. Again, the Holy Spirit uses it to give us an emotional sense of peace and joy when we do the right thing.
  3. Serve as a moral GPS to warn us when we are about to cross a moral or ethical line.

In summary, our conscience is a silent but deeply felt witness to spiritual and moral truth, behavior, and the satisfaction of choosing right over wrong. It is a God given capacity of our minds and souls that we exercise through our bodies when we make both good and bad choices. It monitors our beliefs and attitudes against our behavior and signals our bodies and souls when we are aligned with or out of alignment with biblical values. We can strengthen our conscience, desensitize it, or destroy it.

Five inputs that fashion and form our conscience.

  1. Nature: our genes. Some people are simply born more sensitive to right and wrong (the rule keepers).
  2. Nurture: our parent’s influence. How our parents raised us impacts the health and accuracy of our conscience, especially as it relates to whether or not we experienced a stable and consistent attachment to them.
  3. Daily experiences of life.
  4. Our spiritual maturity.
  5. Our body’s physical state: if we are tired or sick

Why does conscience matter?

  1. Because without it we would have no moral guide.
  2. Because a clear conscience gives us confidence before God (2 Cor. 1.12).
  3. Because a clear conscience gives us confidence in our relationships. Without we have to hide.
  4. Because a clear conscience gives us personal peace.
  5. Because a clear conscience promotes real love. With a clear conscience we are most free to truly love someone else (1 Tim 1.5)

The 7 kinds of consciences:

  1. Natural. Every person is born with a conscience. A natural conscience would be one of a person who is not a follower of Jesus. To a degree our conscience is hard-wired. Most people intuitively know the difference between right and wrong. It’s called natural or general revelation. (Rom 2.14-15). When a person comes to faith, however, the Holy Spirit makes his or her conscience come alive to the things of God.
  2. Weak. A weak conscience is an underdeveloped and uninformed one. Paul speaks of this kind of conscience in 1 Corinthians 8 in his discussion about new Christians who struggled with more mature Christians who ate meat offered to idols. At the point in their spiritual growth, they still hadn’t separated meat from idol worship when meat was eaten after those pagan ceremonies.
  3. Tired. When we resist temptation, our willpower to resist it soon thereafter is drained a bit. It’s called ego depletion (and a related term decision fatigue) Read more about decision fatigue here. Our conscience gets tired and less able to function when we don’t rest and sleep properly.
  4. Seared. Repeatedly refusing to listen to the voice of our conscience degrades and desensitizes our conscience to the things of God (1 Tim 4.2, Eph 4.19).
  5. Shipwrecked. The inevitable result of a seared conscience is what the Apostle Paul described as a conscience that shipwrecks faith (1 Tim 1.19). Such a person, because he continually refused to heed the Spirit’s promptings through his conscience, destroys his faith, now approving of what at one time he readily admitted was sin.
  6. Hypersensitive. This person lives with a perpetual vague or even an acute sense of guilt, even though he or she is not guilty. They constantly second guess themselves, ruminating over experiences and wondering if they offended someone or did something wrong.
  7. Clear. This is what we all desire, what Paul said he strived to keep. A clear conscience gives us a lightness to our soul, freedom with others, and confidence to be ourselves since we have nothing to hide or conceal. Peter wrote about having a good conscience toward God. (1 Pet 3.21)

When we understand more about our conscience and apply such truth, I believe we can most please God, bless others, and experience personal peace.

Have you ever heard a message on the human conscience? What did you learn that you could share?

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