Limbic leadership

Jul 30, 2018

The development of high moral and ethical standards is the most important thing you can do as a leader, and it will transform your team for the good.

We are in desperate need of leadership throughout all levels of our organizations in order to elevate the industry and continue to adapt to the rapid transformation that is partially driven by ever-expanding technological advancements.

In our experience with ownership transition, mergers and acquisitions, or strategic planning, there is a lack of leadership development that will lead to a gradual decline in the overall excellence of our profession. That is why it is important that we encourage everyone at every level of the organization to think of themselves as leaders and hold themselves accountable. It will lead to an environment of safety, innovation, and experimentation required not only to achieve excellence, but to inspire the next generation of engineers to enter the profession.

In every species there exist inherent dominance hierarchies based on repetitive interactions developed in response to competition for limited resources. These hierarchies prevent aggression that could injure or kill one or both animals. Good neurological examples of this can be observed in species that have long preceded humans, such as lobsters, which have been around for some 360 million to 480 million years.

These hierarchies within human society are largely based around competence and arise naturally within our organizations. The problem – and you’ll see this reported frequently by CEOs – is that we tend to develop an imposter syndrome, most noticeably in mid- to lower-tier employees within a firm. Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern in which people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud” when taking on a leadership role.

There are a few simple things that you can do today in order to be seen as a stronger leader, no matter what role you currently fill. The same neurological and psychiatric functions that influence dominance hierarchies can work in your favor to influence behavior and motivate others. Things like standing up straight, dressing well, and continuous learning are simple ways to begin. Take some time for self-discovery and perhaps consider a personality test to help you determine what your individual strengths and weaknesses are. That will set you up well for the more difficult task of developing the necessary skills that will make you a better leader.

The conventional wisdom is that potential leaders need to focus on different skills within different stages of their career development within an organization, and for good reason. Strategic perspective is also important, and without it, you might have a hard time getting promoted into the highest ranks of any firm. But there is one skill in particular that is fundamental to every level of leadership, one that will not dramatically change as you move up the hierarchy. That skill is the development of high moral and ethical standards. This is more important than anything else you can do and requires serious self-reflection.

When combined with communicating clear expectations, great ethics can create a safe and trusting environment for your people. In a safe environment, employees can access the brain’s higher capacity for social engagement, innovation, creativity, and ambition. The neuroscience is clear. If an employee doesn’t feel safe, what gets activated is the brain’s fight-or-flight response, where the amygdala registers a threat to our safety. Arteries harden and thicken to handle an increased blood flow to our extremities. In this state, we lose access to the social engagement system of the limbic system and the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex, inhibiting creativity and the drive for excellence. Utilizing this perspective, making people feel safe should be the number one priority for any true leader.

Other competencies that are frequently cited by leaders as having the greatest impact on success include:

  • Inspires and motivates others
  • Solves problems and analyzes issues
  • Drives for results
  • Collaborates and promotes teamwork
  • Builds relationships
  • Develops others
  • Has the flexibility to change opinions
  • Takes initiative
  • Champions change
  • Practices self-development

Leadership – leadership based on high moral and ethical standards – is a constant process of learning and evolving. Start with this list, perhaps identify a leader you admire and consider a role model, and continue to develop leaders within your organization. If you clearly communicate the expectation that every person within your firm is to perceive themselves as a leader, you will truly see transformational change for the betterment of your organization.

Phil Keil is director of strategy consulting at Zweig Group. He can be reached at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.