AGL 022: The Biology of Leadership – inside the brain of a tech leader

AGL 021: The Pain of Progress
January 15, 2016
AGL 023: Learning as a Leader
February 9, 2016

AGL 022: The Biology of Leadership – inside the brain of a tech leader

When most people talk about Leadership they talk about the psychology side of it, but I believe that it goes much deeper that than.  In this episode I’m going to talk a lot about brain chemicals and I’m going to get a little deep into the biology of leadership.  I was first made aware of such a think when Simon Sinek talked about the makeup of the brain in his famous “Start with Why” TEDx Talk a few years ago.  I was fascinated with the fact that his “golden circle” was grounded in biology and not psychology. There are many chemicals in our brains that affect our emotions, our feelings and our behavior.  I want to talk about 5 specific ones today.  It really makes an impact when you combine these chemicals with the basic human stories of our past and present. To get the full impact of this article, you really need to listen to the podcast episode on this post.

I should probably make it abundantly clear that I’m not a scientist nor a doctor, and I don’t play one on TV.  This is all information that I found on the internet or read in a one or more books that I’m piecing together in my mind… So please don’t use this to make any sort of medical decisions. The four “Happy” chemicals are:

    1. Endorphin– Masks Pain – You feel these when you go for a long run.  The historical reason for Endorphins were for hunting.  Humans aren’t the fastest or strongest of animals, but we’re built for endurance.  We can track animals for miles and miles to get the kill, all the while, endorphins worked to mask our pain. They also made us feel good and encouraged us to go out again and again.  It’s a good system for our survival.
    2. Dopamine– Makes you feel good when you achieve a goal – The historical reason for dopamine is again for our survival.  If we waited until we were hungry to go get food, we’d starve to death.  Dopamine makes us want to achieve a goal, it makes us feel good.  Its that feeling you get when you check something off your todo list.  Sometimes, I add things as I’m doing them to the to do list, just ot check them off and get that dopamine rush… but… dopamine comes with a warning. Its highly addictive.  Other things that release dopamine include alcohol, drugs, gambling, eating.  Its great for motivation, when balanced. If it becomes unbalanced, problems happen.  Ask any drug addict if their addiction has caused any issues??  So how do we keep it balanced?
    3. Oxytocin– Safety and love – Oxytocin makes us feel safe.  Its released when we feel as though we belong.  It also is released when have human contact.  Oxytocin increases our generosity and our caring for others.  Its released when we see others helping others… when they use their time and effort, not their money.  That’s partly because time and effort are equal commodities.  We all have a finite supply and once its spent, we can’t get it back.  Oxytocin reduces the negative effects of Dopamine and inhibits addiction.
    4. Serotonin– The leadership chemical – Serotonin is that sense of accomplishment or pride that we get when we’re recognized for something.  It’s a basic human need to feel like we’ve done something that matters.  The beatue fo Serotonin is that its passed through to others that are somewhat involved or assisted you in that success.  For example, if you graduate from college and go across the stage to get your diploma, you receive a rush of serotonin for your accomplishment.  You feel proud.  But at that exact same time, your family members watching you feel proud too.  They also receive a rush of serotonin.  This helps increase the relationship between you two and build the bond.  Its why great teams want to win one for the coach… not for the trophy.


    But there’s one more chemical we must talk about.  Its cortisol.  Also called the stress chemical.  Its that feeling you get, when you’re scared.  We’ve all seen the documentaries where a herd of gazelles are grazing in a field and one hears something and his head pops up… then all the gazelles heads pop up. That’s cortisol.  It heightens our senses, makes us hyper aware, paranoid and tightens our muscles in order to start the fight or flight process.  It’s also quickly spread among social animals.  Then, one gazelle sees the lion, and darts off, they all follow and survive.  The cortisol leaves their bodies and all is well… good stuff right?  Well… Maybe not.  Its great in short doses, however, in order to heighten our senses and tighten our muscles our body needs energy and it takes that energy from somewhere else.  It takes it from our growth functions and our immune system. This is bad for us, if we have a sense of fear in our workplace.  If we’re always stressed, we have a constant drip…drip…drip of cortisol in our system, weakening our immune system. Cortisol also inhibits the production of Oxytocin.  This means that stressed and fearful people are more concerned with their selves than that of others. How do you think this will affect team work or business growth?  Think about it.  We are slowly killing our employees when we make them afraid and lead with fear.  We must lead with trust.  If you’re reading this instead of listening to the podcast, I highly recommend you listen to this episode.  You’ll get a lot more out of it as I go more in depth on the effect of these chemicals on leaders.

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