Qualities of Leaders: The Amygdala Hijack

Recently I was driving on a freeway with a friend. We were having a quiet companionable moment together when someone cut in front of our car while changing lanes. My companion, who was driving, immediately went ballistic, swearing and yelling at the other driver. His behaviour seemed to come out of nowhere and I was shocked until I remembered reading about the so-called “Amygdala Hijack”, a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his writings about Emotional Intelligence.

What an interesting phenomenon this is!

Drawing on LeDoux’s work, which uses animal research to understand pathological fear and anxiety in humans, Goleman uses the term Amygdala Hijack to describe immediate and overwhelming emotional responses which are over the top and out of sync with the actual situation. In these cases the stimulus has triggered a more significant emotional threat than would seem reasonable to an observer.

The neuroscience reads like this: From the thalamus, a part of the stimulus goes directly to the amygdala while another part is sent to the neocortex (the rational or thinking brain).

If the amygdala perceives the stimulus as a fight, flight or freeze situation, it triggers the HPA (hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the rational brain. This emotional brain activity processes information milliseconds earlier than the rational brain, so in case of a match, the amygdala acts before any possible direction from the neocortex can be received, leading to seemingly irrational and possibly destructive behaviour.

If the amygdala does not find any match to the stimulus received with its recorded threatening situations, then it acts according to the directions received from the neocortex.

Now my friend is – most of the time at least – a charming man with a high degree of Emotional Intelligence in his interpersonal relations. He is a leader. As well, he is kind and empathetic, and can often put himself in another person’s shoes and feel deeply for their problems. So when he reacts to a moderate stressor with such an over-the-top response, I find myself getting stressed and wanting to shout at him to settle down and be reasonable, which of course would not be the best choice of my own behaviour!

I wonder if testosterone is involved in some way and if women experience Amygdala Hijacks as often as men may do – and do the trigger circumstances differ with gender differences? or it is more related to temperament and world view thus influencing how different personalties approach and interact with their world?

Mandela and Leadership

I was listening to an HBR webcast yesterday – an interview with Christiane Amanpour, who has always interested me, on Leadership. One of the things she said really struck a cord. She said “leadership is not a zero sum game” – an expression that has long confused me and which I now understand more clearly. She said: “As a leader, you have to look for the win – win for yourself and for the other. She used Mandela’s desire and ability to build relationship with De Klerk as an example and she talked about understanding the other’s perspective so that you can find the win-win and enable others to act. This is something I have always believed in and tried to practice and teach/coach. With her gift of communication, she expressed it so well and so easily.

Cape Town and Robben Island

Yesterday we arrived at the Cape Town airport without a booked hotel having changed from original plans to fly to Port Elizabeth when weather prevented us. The city is busy with a large mining conference but we were able to find a nice room online at the Hilton Hotel in the city centre. Great breakfasts and a bonus that it has a super sea salt outdoor pool which we have found delightful at the end of a hot day sightseeing. Weather is very warm – over 30 degrees and the sun is very strong on our pale Canadian winter skin. No complaints though – especially thinking of you braving the icy cold at home.

Yesterday (Saturday) we enjoyed a city tour which took us around the main downtown areas as well as up Table Mountain with its iconic views of the city, the harbor and the oceans, and through the beach communities – like Camps Bay – which stretch along the seashore at the foot of the Twelve Apostles. The beach area reminds me of Kitsilano in Vancouver. The city is as stunning as its reputation. Like all vibrant cities in the world it has it’s gritty areas as well – as we found out one night walking out to dinner on Long St – and it has a large shanty town with very small tin-roofed huts which must be unbearably hot in summer and cold in winter.

Today we had a very interesting trip to Robben Island. We’re so glad we read Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and reread Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country before coming. Being aware of recent history and political events has made it much easier to understand many things and to appreciate where the country is at socially and where it intends to go. Mandela is honored everywhere for his courage, heart, vision and tenacity. He is a hero and a role model to the black population as one of their own who brought the world to South Africa. To whites he is a man who is much admired as a Nobel peace prize winner – one of 4 South Africans to do so (also Bishop Tutu, de Klerk and Albert Luthuli).

This country is a haven for all Africans. We hear reports that people stream across the border trying to get to a better life. And for those who know these things, they can have documents indicating their new citizenship overnight – a big problem for a country that wants to provide jobs, good health care and education to all its people. Apparently income taxes are only collected from a small part of the population either because the rest don’t earn enough or because they don’t know how to fill out the forms and have never had to do it??? – we need to understand this better……

We are also told this is the murder and rape capital of the world. Blacks have told us they know where people are from by their appearance and they will keep people out to protect their jobs. That said, tourists are very well treated. It is said that one tourist can create up to 10 jobs. People understand that jobs are what is needed to decrease poverty and open up opportunity. Working blacks are everywhere: In the restaurants, hotels, taxis, ticket booths for sightseeing, as well as driving the tour buses and boats and guiding tours on Robben Island (many political prisoner are now the guides) and some are the guests and tourists as well and of course they are the journalists, politicians and governors of this country and largely making a good job of it.

Today which is Monday Feb 6 we fly to Tswalu Game Reserve in the Kalahari. We have lots more observations and pictures to share and will do so as we can.

Leadership and Patient Safety

We often hear about the need for leadership in health care practice. Yet for many, the word leader is just another buzzword. We often think leaders are born not made, and leadership is for others with important titles, nice offices and assistants at the door.

Our experiences with the Dorothy Wylie Nursing and Health Leaders Institute, now in its 10th year with over 2300 alumni, provide us with a different mental model. We believe that building leadership skills and developing leadership competence and confidence is important for every health professional. We believe leadership makes a profound difference in the quality of care patients receive. We believe that health professionals who see themselves as leaders will make a difference in every patient and family interaction. Continue reading “Leadership and Patient Safety”

Sunshine and Excitement in the City

Gorgeous Vancouver day today! The sun is out, the sky is clear, the mountains seem closer to the city than ever and the views are spectacular. The weather has brought out lots of strollers into the streets of the Athletes’ Village. You realize how spectacular this city is when the weather is nice!

We are half way through the Games and the time is flying by. The energy in the city is electric. There are people everywhere with Go Canada on clothing, on signs and flags, on cars and trucks, in store windows, and reflected in their conversation. People are talking to each other everywhere – on the streets, in the sky train, waiting at stoplights, even in the grocery store. Locals are helping visitors to get to where they want to go, offering suggestions of great things to do, asking volunteers what work they are doing, where they are from, why they chose to volunteer and what it is like.
Continue reading “Sunshine and Excitement in the City”

Leadership at the Movies: Invictus and 5 Leadership Practices

Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood have created another very special movie now playing across North America. Invictus is the story of Nelson Mandela’s early days as President of South Africa, and particularly how he viewed the country’s Rugby team, the Springboks, and an upcoming World Cup event to be held in South Africa, as an opportunity to bring the country together.

The year is 1995. Mandela (Freeman) is in his first term as President. He recognizes the tremendous challenges facing his government in a land torn apart by apartheid. Racial tensions are at an all time high, people are struggling with the effects of crippling unemployment, and a new black government has shifted the balance of political power. Continue reading “Leadership at the Movies: Invictus and 5 Leadership Practices”

Courage and Tenacity: Qualities of Leaders

I was in Trafalgar Square in London England recently and made a point of finding Edith Clavell’s memorial in St Martin’s Place. Like all great leaders, no matter the arena, Edith Clavell had great courage and much tenacity.  During the first World War, she was a nurse who remained in Brussels, Belgium, after the Germans occupied the city early in the war, tending to wounded soldiers from all countries at the Red Cross Hospital.

In addition to this work, Clavell helped captured British, French and Belgian soldiers escape to the neutral Netherlands, where most would eventually make it across the channel to England.  Born on December 4, 1865 in Swardeston, England, she has been described as a “vivacious, tree-climbing girl who grew into the determined, severe woman we see in the statue.”  She has been further described as “headstrong and independent” and thus prevented from attracting “a man of money” and it is said that ” she was too proud to accept a lesser one”.   She never married, but devoted her life to nursing.

Here is an account of her work from the diary of a man she nursed back to health:

In 1915 Miss Clavell was directress of l’Ecole Belge d’ Infirmieres Diplomees, as well as a new hospital, St. Gilles, both training women for the profession of nursing.  As the great war engulfed Belgium Miss Clavell became part of an underground resistance network working in Brussels to help men escape.  She protected hospitalized men by keeping them longer than they needed.  When there were no beds available, Edith sheltered men in the hospital’s attic and cellar.  In this way, she helped approximately two hundred men escape the Germans.  On August 4, 1915, after months of observation, the Germans arrested Edith and others sheltering Belgian soldiers.  On October 7, 1915, Edith Clavell, along with others in the underground network were found guilty of resistance activities and sentenced to death by firing squad.  Despite American, French and Spanish intercession, Edith’s sentence was not commuted.  On October 12, 1915, Edith was executed by German firing squad.

Edith Clavell was 49 years old when she was shot to death.  “Her life and death make me think of the line from The Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams’ character, Mr Keatings says to his students:  “Make something of yourselves, boys.   Make you life count!