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The Neuroscience of Leadership

The Neuroscience of Leadership

Why do coaches need great EQ? Why do leaders? What can neuroscience teach us about coaching and leadership?

Last spring in the intermediate coaching class that I teach at SMU, we dove deeply into “brain-wise” coaching, coming to understand that—as Jenny Rogers, author of one of our texts, notes—good coaching grounds itself in the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain.

Why does this matter? The higher order thinking activities in which effective coaches and leaders regularly engage—envisioning, planning, reasoning and communicating—occur in the pre-frontal cortex. Because every strategic action of the pre-frontal cortex relies on the emotional center of the brain—the amygdala—these two parts of the brain, the rational and the emotional, must work in concert. When people experience an amygdala attack or emotional hijack, they are unable to access the rational power of the pre-frontal cortex because they are completely absorbed by their feelings. As Rogers writes, “cognition is the servant of emotion, not its master.”

This is why well-developed EQ is vitally important for coaches and leaders. The four elements of EQ—self awareness and self management and social awareness and relationship management—decrease the frequency with which emotional hijacks occur and increase the likelihood that when and if they do happen, they will be managed effectively.

So, what are possible triggers for an emotional hijack in the workplace? What actions can cause the amygdala to activate the “fight/flight/freeze” impulse?

Actions in which the coach or the leader might engage that feel like social threats to others include:

  • Poorly given feedback
  • Public reprimands
  • Failing to provide consistent and timely information
  • Advice-giving (as distinct from quality feedback)
  • Limited opportunities for self-direction
  • Not listening
  • Playing favorites

When these things happen, the person on the receiving end is no longer able to think rationally because all of his/her energy is absorbed in the emotion of feeling patronized, disrespected, discounted and under-valued. And, if this happens often, people constantly steel themselves against the hurt of these behaviors. This is why people working for a boss with high emotional intelligence generally do better work, feel more positive about the organization, and will go the extra mile to ensure that the organization succeeds. The opposite is true for those working for a boss with low EQ.

For those of us in the role of coach and/or leader, it’s important to first say that the space to “act out” emotionally is narrow indeed. We have chosen these leadership roles and must do so with the understanding that while we may FEEL irritated, aggrieved, hurt, resentful, angry, lonely, tired, etc., we are obligated and expected to effectively manage those emotions because of the role we are in. This is leadership. This is EQ.

As coaches and leaders, we must be able to accurately perceive our emotions in the moment and understand our tendencies across situations. We must be able to understand what we are feeling when we’re feeling it and have good awareness of what our hot buttons are. Then we have to effectively manage ourselves. The cost of failing to do so is high and results in a toxic environment for all. Simply put, the cost of low EQ is astronomical.

This week, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with a leadership team—principal, assistant principals, instructional coaches, and coordinators—from a Dallas middle school that is in the midst of a significant transition. The principal has taken the courageous and innovative step to ask her administrative team, teacher leaders, peers and her supervisor to complete a 360 feedback survey on her leadership, the results of which she will base her own individual coaching goals for the upcoming year. The leadership team spent two days eagerly diving into learning, planning and talking very honestly about their own EQ—self-awareness and self-management, social awareness and relationship management. This team exemplifies the neuroscience of leadership.

As Daniel Goleman says: “The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership.”

We all understand that the technical elements of coaching and leadership—analyzing and using data, managing the budget, building a master schedule, and modeling effective teaching practices—are very important. However, it is the adaptive element of leadership, where capacity is less developed, that facilitates deep change and improvement. These adaptive challenges—such as developing and demonstrating the mindset and skillset for continuous learning, modeling and developing self-reflectiveness, functioning as a professional learning community—both rely upon and deepen the leader’s EQ. And EQ is the true leadership essential.


  • Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Bradbury and Greaves
  • The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus by Roy Oswald and Arland Jacobson
  • Coaching Skills: A Handbook by Jenny Rogers
  • “How Emotional Intelligence Became a Key Leadership Skill”, Harvard Business Review.