As some 17 million Americans binge-watched Game of Thrones this week, I was struck by how much the world needs more leaders like Daenerys Targaryen. From leading her khalasar through the Red Waste to freeing the slaves of Yunkai and Meereen to refusing to let the dosh kaleen deter her on her mission to save the seven kingdoms, Dany embodies mindful leadership. Blessed with natural empathy and a thirst for justice, through seven seasons she added clarity of purpose empowering her to literally walk through fire. At the same time, she listens attentively to her advisors and offers hope to her followers.
Perhaps most importantly, Dany didn’t start out as the powerful, connected leader that we see in later seasons; she developed over time. In my work with leaders from across the country, I have been honored to witness this process; I have also seen what derails it.
One key to developing into a mindful, conscious leader is successfully navigating what psychologists call the “amygdala hijack.” If you aren’t sure what one looks like, just think of King Joffrey demanding that his angry whims be pacified with no thought to the consequences. By contrast, Dany’s capacity to stay grounded and clear-headed and not be ruled by her emotions—even when Drogon whisks her off into the Dothraki Sea with no means of return—allows her to negotiate difficulties with grace and rationality. When leaders are in an amygdala hijack, their ability to make a good decision is compromised – neurobiologically. They lose the capacity to notice, to pause and to refrain from taking any action until they can see the situation clearly.
Here are three things leaders can do to further develop their capacity to navigate the amygdala hijack and learn to walk through metaphorical fires in a mindful, conscious way:
- Regulate your nervous system. The single most researched, most accessible way to regulate our nervous systems is to breathe. Find a breathing practice and do it every day. In addition, don’t underestimate the fact that we are biological beings. If there is anything clear in the research, it’s that our nervous systems are frayed and compromised if we are under-resourced. Drop the superhero cape and the busy badge and make it a priority to sleep, eat well, exercise and nurture your relationships.
- Pay attention to what you pay attention to. We know from quantum physics that what we pay attention to expands. If you are hyper-focused on problems, you will get more problems. Start reorienting yourself to focus on vision or preferred outcome so that your inner state will be one of passion instead of anxiety and your efforts can move you in the direction of what you want instead of continuing to amplify the problem. So often as leaders we are compromising our own maneuverability by thinking what we see is all there is. There is always a bigger picture or another angle. Learn to zoom out to see more of the picture. Learn to zoom in to see details and texture that you are blind to at your current elevation. Widen your inner circle and listen to people who have had completely different life experiences.
- Make room for joy and play. Albert Einstein once said, “Play is the highest form of research.” It’s a natural state that we un-naturally allow to atrophy. Despite having the literal weight of the world on her shoulders, Dany consistently makes time for her love interests and clearly derives joy from her dragons. Making room for joy and play in our lives facilitates more a-ha moments, more creativity and greater life satisfaction. And in our businesses, it fuels innovation and assists in retention and recruitment. Add something to your schedule this week that has no intended outcome other than joy and play. Little experiments with joy and play can completely shift how we are interacting with the more challenging aspects of our lives and can help keep things in perspective, minimizing the chances we will be bossed around by our amygdala.
To be sure, Daenerys is not everyone’s idea of a great leader. Some critics have called her a militant dictator, and others a white savior figure; both are deeply problematic archetypes to say the least. But we can also look at her leadership team (including two former slaves, a eunuch and a member of her sworn enemy’s family) to see the meritocracy and diversity she promotes.
And of course, it’s hardly just fictional women demonstrating mindful leadership these days. 2019 has been filled with examples of powerful women avoiding the amygdala hijack and leading with calm ablumb, from Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her direct, no-nonsense questioning of Michael Cohen, to Lori Lightfood, elected first gay person and the first black woman to serve as mayor of Chicago.
As leaders, when we operate from a mindful conscious place, we thrive. Our well-being is contagious and positively impacts everyone around us. But more importantly, to quote the Mother of Dragons, we are positioned to “leave the world better than we found it.”
Michelle Kinder is a licensed professional counselor and a nationally recognized leader in social-emotional health and mindful leadership. In partnership with Stagen Leadership Academy, she is the founder of the Social Change Leadership Program for women. Based in Dallas, she is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.