A beach-cliff image with agitated waves clashing agains rocks

Navigating stormy seas: lessons from transformative leadership practices for turbulent times

March 31, 2020
This is Part II of a three-part series that introduces key concepts from transformative leadership practices to help us navigate during this time of global uncertainty. In my work, I always distinguish between being a leader and leadership; you don’t have to be a “leader” for these lessons to be relevant. Whatever role(s) you hold right now – as parent, co-worker, boss, sibling, friend, or community member –  the world is calling for each and every one of us to show up and be our best. My hope is that these tools can help you do that.

In Part I, I introduced the idea that there are certain leadership practices that can help us to feel more equipped for showing up during times of crises and unpredictable change. The first step in this is understanding what actually happens to our brains and body chemistry in stressful situations. “Know Thyself” is the mantra for this practice: we learn to recognize, understand and embrace our mind’s unique defence mechanisms and then use them to strengthen our work. Our defence mechanisms are our brain’s way of flagging that it perceives danger nearby and is starting to feel threatened.

I like working with metaphors so let’s imagine for a moment that you are in a boat, navigating a turbulent stretch of water with hidden rocks lying just beneath the surface on all sides. Our defence mechanisms are like the buoys that signal to us that danger is nearby. We want to be able to recognize and interpret these signals so that we can navigate smoothly around the obstacles. If we are unable to recognize them, then our defence mechanisms themselves become dangerous distractions and we end up overreacting and swerving from danger to danger. By learning to work with our defence mechanisms we gradually develop the ability to keep our head up and eyes on the horizon, skilfully navigating the dangers to ensure not only smooth and safe sailing, but that we get to our final destination.


I like to use the Learning Zone Model(1) as a starting point for understanding how our brain’s defence system works. If you’ve done any kind of life or executive coaching, you’ve probably come across this before. Very simply, the Learning Zones look like this:

The Comfort Zone is where most of us spend the majority of our time. It is familiar, secure and in our control. A good home situation, a stable job with co-workers you like, a strong and supportive network of long-term friends. All of these exist within your Comfort Zone.

The Stretch Zone (also commonly referred to as the Learning Zone) contains the experiences that exist when we step outside of our comfort zone. Things feel challenging, slightly risky, new and different: this is where learning happens and personal growth takes place.

The Panic Zone exists beyond the Stretch Zone, when someone or something has pushed us too far beyond our limits. Once into our Panic Zone, our pre-programmed survival mechanisms set in, thinking shuts down, and no learning (or rational behavior) takes place.

It’s important to note here that the Learning Zone Model is both individual and dynamic. The relative size of each circle looks different for all of us and those boundaries between comfort, stretch and panic can shift over time (see diagram below). When running a multi-day workshop I will ask participants at the beginning and end of each day to locate themselves on the diagram, just to get a sense how we move in and out between the zones and how our boundaries can shift and move over time.

This is where the theory becomes a useful tool for navigating during times of crisis.

You might want to try this on your own, taking a few quick minutes at the beginning and end of each day to reflect on where you are. Although straightforward, this simple practice of applying inquisitive curiosity to our day-to-day helps begin to create space between the reactive and the proactive, and that space is our manoeuvring space for clear sailing!

In addition to creating this space, our goal is to also significantly increase both the Comfort Zone and the Learning Zone so that we can more skilfully function in a wider range of situations. At the same time, we want to  develop the ability to recognize the boundaries of our Panic Zone so we can intentionally draw ourselves back whenever we sense we are getting too close and avoid a limbic system hijack. More about that follows…


To facilitate this learning process we first need to become familiar with two things: our defences (the flags that warn us about dangers), and our panic zone reactions. Now, just being aware of these does not mean that we will suddenly become immune to a hostile takeover of our limbic system. But knowledge is power, and by better understanding how our own programming works we can better empower ourselves to be more proactive in managing our reactions.

I want to spend some time exploring our panic zone reactions by first of all going into a very simplified explanation of how our brains work (and a huge thanks to my neuroscientist friends Dr. Carl and Dr. Eduardo for your teachings!) This explanation comes from Triune Brain theoryfor which you can find plenty online. At its most simple, we can imagine the brain being made up of three main parts (sub-brains): our neocortex, our mammalian brain, and our reptilian brain. My friend Dr. Carl would explain it by holding up his hand into a fist with the thumb inside the fist. The reptilian brain is the thumb tucked inside, the mammalian brain is the base of the thumb and the wrist, and the neocortex are the fingers that wrap around the top. Neat.

The neocortex is the part of our brain responsible for strategic thinking, decision making, accessing multiple perspectives, problem solving, advanced planning, visionary thinking and complex social interactions. It’s what sets us apart from our close cousins, the chimpanzees.

The mammalian brain is responsible for controlling our limbic system, which is connected to our emotional responses. The mammalian brain also houses our amygdala (our fear center), which controls our body’s response to danger. This is the area that raises all of those warning flags we discussed earlier on, as well as triggering our survival responses if the threat of danger becomes too much.

The reptilian brain is our autopilot. It responds to signals from the mammalian brain that danger is present (the rocks are getting too close) and goes into survival mode. This survival mode (often referred to as the fight, flight or freeze response) has been pre-programmed into us since we descended from the trees onto the Serengeti to face the lion. Once in autopilot, there’s no controlling it.

The other relevant fact about these sub-brains is how they interact. In normal circumstances our neocortex is running the show, and we get to be the amazing, intelligent, funny and smart human beings that we know ourselves to be. But when our mammalian brain senses danger and activates our reptilian brain, it takes over and our neocortex goes offline. You may have heard this referred to as being “emotionally hijacked” or “triggered” and it is very likely that you have experienced it at some time in your life.

So why is this relevant now? This is relevant now because as we all work to navigate these turbulent, constantly shifting waters we need our neocortex to stay engaged so we can get us – and those we support – safely through to the other side. Something that becomes very difficult to do if our reptilian brain is piloting the ship.


As I mentioned above our reptilian response is a pre-programmed survival mechanism, often referred to as our fight, flight or freeze response. We all have one that is unique to each of us and it’s helpful to recognize what that looks like. In order to do so I find it useful to break this survival response into four categories, explained below and in the diagram that follow:

Attack Others: this stems from our fight instinct, and is a verbal, emotional and/or physical desire to lash out, blame others, and attack those around us;

Attack Self: again rooted in our fight instinct, those that tend towards this response turn inward on themselves, physically, verbally and/or emotionally;

Shut Down: this is a combination of the flight and freeze response. Escaping, running away and withdrawing are other ways to describe this. It may look like a physical freeze with a mental/emotional withdrawal, or a physical withdrawal. In our online world deleting, blocking or removing ourselves from groups are also versions of this;

Addictions: addictions and distractions can involve a range of things – alcohol, substances, work, the online world or even obsessing over a single issue. Addictions are the opposite of the freeze response in that they often involve hyperactivity.

These reactions also have by definition 4 key characteristics: they are charged with energy, they are unconscious, they are autonomous and they only provide short-term relief.

I have found in my work over the years that most people will identify strongly with 1-2 of these categories, although we have probably experienced each of them at some point in time. It is important to remember here as well that in naming these responses, there is no judgement or blame attached. In fact if anything, we should feel grateful because these responses have kept us alive for thousands of years!

I invite you now to take a moment to look at the diagram above.  Can you identify where you are now in terms of comfort/stretch/panic zones and in which quadrant your survival response lies?

Given the global pandemic that we are all facing, it would not be at all surprising that you are feeling either close to or in your panic zone. What I have observed in reaching out and talking with folks over the last few weeks is that many of us are either locked in panic mode, or caught in a repeating panic-response cycle: our reptilian brain is triggered, autopilot survival mode comes on. Once it switches off, we feel drained and exhausted. As we start to build our energy reserves to re-engage with the world, something else happens and autopilot is triggered once again.

If you can see yourself in either of these descriptions, now is a good opportunity to take a step back and give yourself some space. Because as much as you might try, you cannot force your neocortex back into action! It is however pretty good at getting back online, so taking a step back doesn’t mean that you need to retreat to the mountaintop and meditate for 3 days.

Just find something that you know from experience helps you to feel a little more calm, a little more grounded. I recommend doing something that engages your body as well as your mind, as a lot of physical energy gets stored in the body during times of high stress. I know right now there have also been ample online offerings about different wellness activities (online yoga, zoom meditation classes), but I would recommend that you save those for later – now is not the time to be learning something new (that’s Stretch Zone).

It could be as simple as going for a walk, dancing to a favorite song, working in the garden, or playing with your pet for a few moments. As you do it, try and keep that mindset of inquisitive curiosity to see if you can notice when your reptilian brain switches off and you come back out of panic zone. And when you do notice it, stop for a moment and give yourself a hug. Because you’re doing an amazing job!

You can find other information and postings on my blog. Finally, if you are reading this and feel that you could benefit during this time from one-on-one support, please feel free to contact me directly.

Part I Practicing Wholeheartedness
Part II Navigating Stormy Seas
Part III Recognizing our Defences


(1) Developed by the German adventure pedagogue Tom Senninger

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