top of page

Houston, we have a problem... PART 2: 5 Strategies for Conscious Leadership!

As promised, I’m back with five strategies to reengage your frontal cortex when your neocortex and limbic system stop talking to one another. If that sounds like gobbledygook to you, go back and reread Part 1 for a quick refresher.

STORY: Houston, we have a problem! Part 2 Dive right into conscious (versus unconscious) leadership and pick up five strategies to use right away!.

READ MORE: Additional Resources. Videos, articles and books to go deeper on the five tools.

BOOK STUFF: Book Club. Join me 4PM PST Thursday, February 22, 2024 to discuss a pair of books: "Of Boys and Men" by Richard Reeves and "Untangled" by Lisa Damour.

GOING FURTHER: Leadership Identity Workshop. Deadline to register is Monday, February 19, 2024. I invite you to step away from the busy-ness of everyday business and consider who you are as a leader. Learn more and sign here HERE.


STORY: Part 2: 5 Strategies for Conscious Leadership

Currently, my favorite leadership book is the 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp. (Brené Brown, I haven’t forgotten about you and still adore everything you write…Really!) 

Dethmer, Chapman, and Klemp start off every training by drawing a thick black line across the page like this:

They say, “At any point, a leader is either above the line or below the line. If you are above it, you are leading consciously, and if you are below it, you are not.” 

When leaders are above the line, they’re open, curious, creative, collaborative, and committed to learning. When they’re below the line, they’re closed, defensive, judgemental, siloed, and committed to being right. Conscious leaders play an infinite game where everyone can win and everyone can play. Unconscious leaders play a zero-sum game.

Psychologist-economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky describe the same conscious/unconscious divide in different words. In Kahneman’s fantastic 2011 book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he calls conscious leadership thinking “slow”. It takes effort to integrate analysis with emotion and requires a considerable amount of cognitive resources, thus, thinking “slow” is not the normal state of things. It’s deliberate thinking and action to address a problem in a new way. 

Contrast that with thinking “fast”. It’s automatic and to be honest, the normal state of things. Thinking “fast” is based on habits and heuristics, mental short cuts that preserve limited metabolic resources like blood sugar and cognitive resources like working memory for other things.

Neuroscientifically, what this means is that above-the-line conscious leaders engage their frontal cortex to do the right thing even if it’s the hard thing. They have their whole brain working together in concert. The neocortex (the thinking stuff) is working in a coordinated way with their limbic system (the emotion stuff) and with their midbrain and brainstem (the automatic stuff). Mind-heart-body aligned.

Below the line, unconscious leaders are operating according to habit or under stress. Brain regions that are necessary for creativity, problem solving, learning, and teamwork either shut down or show diminished in their functionality. In other words, they’re operating with a short circuited frontal cortex like I describe in Part 1

I've put all this together in one handy table:

Conscious Leaders are…

Unconscious leaders are…










Zero-sum game

Committed to learning

Committed to being right

Thinking “slow”

Thinking “fast”




The norm

Requires lots of cognitive resources

Requires fewer cognitive resources

Deliberate actions that may be new  

Preprogrammed habits and emotional responses

Active frontal cortex

Short-circuited or less engaged frontal cortex

Mind-heart-body (neocortex-limbic system-midbrain/brainstem) coordinated

Mind / heart / body uncoordinated


The question is, how do you get above the line? How do you move from unconscious leadership to conscious leadership? 

First, let’s make one thing very clear: it’s not BAD to be below the line. It’s the normal state of human existence. Most humans, most of the time, are below the line, operating and leading unconsciously. It’s okay. 

But should you want to move above the line, to reengage your frontal cortex, to do the right thing even if it’s the hard thing, here are my top five strategies.

1. Notice

In the 15 Commitments, they say over and over, the first step is to locate where you are. Right now, are you above or below the line? 

Now where are you? 

How about now?

For me, being around my mom, stress, and big emotions are triggers and almost guarantee that I’ll be below the line. What are your triggers?

If I feel like I have tunnel vision, am hyper focused, and my body physically leans forward, like a runner at the starting block, that’s definitely below the line. What does it feel like in your body?

If I’m trying to go fast and get stuff done in a state of overwhelm or under time pressure, definitely below the line. What is your mindset?

Step one is to notice where you are. Eventually, it’ll be just like checking an indicator light on the dash of your car – a 1 second glance will tell you where you are.

And just like if the “check engine” light is on in your car, you can decide if you want to do something about it. If you’re below the line, you can choose whether to shift above the line or not. Remember, it’s perfectly okay to accept being below the line. Here’s a list of times when I’m perfectly happy to be below the line, unconsciously humming along:

  • Checking emails and messages

  • Attending meetings and classes that I’m not teaching/leading

  • Adulting (dishes, laundry, picking up, driving kids to school, making dinner, etc.)

  • Zoning out on the news, Internet, movies, or social media

  • Admin type work (filling out forms, paying bills, doing taxes, etc.)

The 15 Commitments folks offer an entire page full of questions to ask yourself to determine whether or not you truly want to shift. Some questions are really hard to honestly say yes to, like: “Are you willing to let go of being right?” and “Are you willing to take 100% responsibility?” 

If the answer to any of the questions is no, then the only thing to do is accept yourself for being exactly where you are. It’s accepting being human. It’s being self-aware. And that's good enough for now.

2. Pause

Let’s say you DO want to shift. What then?

We often rush through life as if it were a movie in a theater rather than a video on your TV or computer at home. In a theater, you don’t have control over the playback speed. At home, at work, anytime in life, you can control the playback speed. 

Push stop or push pause or engage the slow motion feature. You don’t have to barrel forward at top speed. 

As my husband likes to tell the kids: “Slow down and think about what you’re doing.”

As the military likes to say: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”

As I like to say: “Take a brain break.”

I was on the phone with someone today who calls it “add a speed bump.”

All of these are ways to remind oneself to change the playback speed. 

Let’s say a conversation is going south. Push pause and take a breath (or five) before responding. Or rewind by saying, “Wait, that’s not what I meant to say. Let’s try this again.”


3. Name the emotion.

Another way to coordinate the neocortex (mind) and limbic system (heart) is to name the emotion you’re feeling. Remember how the limbic system is non-linguistic? Understanding and speaking words is the sole purview of the neocortex. When you force yourself to name the emotion you’re feeling in words, in the brain, you’re forcing information from the limbic system to communicate with the neocortex to the point where words are possible. It specifically re-engages the frontal cortex and allows you to lead more consciously. 

Psychologist Matthew Lieberman from UCLA found that putting feelings into words makes negative emotions like sadness, anger, and pain less intense and it makes limbic brain areas like the amygdala less reactive. In short, naming your emotions helps you self-regulate.

4. Play

Play and laughter is generally incompatible with being below the line. Appreciating humor requires coordinated activity between the neocortex and limbic system. So when a situation is feeling really serious, confrontational, and stuck, find a way to turn it playful and funny. 

Here’s some of my favorite examples:

  • I’m working with a government agency right now whose office is under intense outside scrutiny and pressure. Lately, those outside voices have become really aggressive and angry. I’ve been enlisted to help facilitate some professional development to help them navigate. So, I’m bringing them serious case studies to ponder, but asking them to report out the best and worst ways to handle the situation in sitcom style like Parks and Recreation, or The Office, with maybe a little IT Crowd thrown in.  

  • I have a long-running problem with dishes (aka “Why doesn’t anyone else in this house help with the dishes?!?! AGH!”). It’s mostly resolved now because of this one coaching session I had. I came to the session really frustrated and tangled up about it. My coach made me do this ridiculous exercise where I had to pretend to be a professor, teaching a master’s level semester long course titled: “How to ensure that you are the only person in the household to ever do the dishes.” Apparently, I held a double PhD on the subject, was considered a world expert, and there was a classroom full of eager graduate students hanging on my every word. I ended up designing absurd lectures like: “How to micromanage dishwasher loading” and “Best sarcastic, bitchy one liners to nag your husband”. And guess what…the tension broke, I ended up laughing, but more importantly, came away with dozens of insights and new actions that ultimately resolved my tangled up feelings of frustration. 

  • One of my all time favorite stories is about a CEO whose mistakes led to the worst fiscal year on record. He wasn’t fired but had to walk into a leadership meeting to own up to his failures and then rally his team to find a path forward. Well, he secretly taped cheap plastic foam dart guns under every chair. He told his directors to take the dart guns out and have at him. The all out dart gun war released the fear, anger, hurt and disappointment and allowed everyone in that board room to shift above the line again into a creative solution finding mindset.

5. Expand.

Final tip, expand your awareness. Usually, that means talking to people to seek another perspective. For instance, you might:

  • Ask for feedback. Sometimes I’m in such a state that I don’t see myself clearly. Jason knows how to cue me and change the playback speed. He calls my frontal cortex failure moments: “Irene’s kryptonite”. He’ll kindly slip our code word into the conversation, “I think we’re having a kryptonite moment.” or “Pal, is there any kryptonite lying around?” 

  • Ask for help. I know that’s uncomfortable but an outside perspective is the best source of new ideas. Today, Jason helped me say “No” to a training program that I was really excited about but also knew might be one too many things in a busy season. My below the line reflex was to say yes, but I asked for his help to see the landscape more clearly.

  • If you’re in conflict with someone, consider the other person’s perspective as if they were the hero protagonist of their own story, doing their best with what they have and what they know. Ask them to take a walk with you and stick strictly to asking questions with genuine curiosity and a willingness to learn. Don’t offer your own side at all until you can restate their perspective in your own words to their complete satisfaction. I did that not too long ago with someone with whom I have vastly different political leanings. I genuinely didn’t understand their perspective, but after a walk and a lot of questions and stories, I can see things from her point of view in a compassionate way.

But talking isn’t always necessary to expand the perspective. This whole double blog post was triggered by my mom and all the old habits being on a trip with her brought up. But when I truly pause, I can see mom for the perfectly imperfect woman she is. She tucked me in every single night as a child for “pillow talk-y talk”. She showed me the cumulative power of hard work and focus. She taught me to cook, and to sing Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee as I cook. Which probably led to my love of jazz and swing dancing. She kindled my wanderlust. She built a wildly successful business built with hard work and dedication. She loves me in the way she knows how, which makes our trip to Australia, however tumultuous, a really beautiful, perfectly imperfect thing.

Read More: Additional Resources

Read the 15 Commitments. You won’t regret it. And if you want the super short intro to the main idea, here’s a video. The other videos found on their Resources page are also fantastic!

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman is a truly wonderful read and will change how you think. For an article length read, consider this lovely piece by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair for an introduction to their research, as well as the story of two friends whose ideas changed the world.

Finally, I talk about several of these strategies in other blog posts. I suppose that means I repeat myself a lot. I’m not sorry. Reminders are good. (Psst... and if you know someone who might appreciate this post or any others, please forward it along!)

Book Stuff: Book Club

Book club is coming up soon and we’d love to have your help picking our new books for March/April. Currently, we’re reading your choice of: Of Boys and Men by Richard Reeves OR Untangled by Lisa Damour. 

Our next meeting will be Thursday, February 22, 2024 from 4-5 pm PST. E-mail Tessa at to be added to the list!

Going Further: Leadership Identity Workshop

Last chance to join my full day workshop on Friday, February 23, 2024 in Redding California! If any of the following statements apply to you, then you’d love this workshop:

A) I wonder how my brain is wired for leadership.

B) It's high time I revise my personal mission or vision statement.

C) I can't quite describe my leadership style.

D) Work feels like work, not play.

E) It seems my peers have this role all figured out, but I don't.

F) I sometimes wonder how to make a real impact within my organization. (Or shhhh...I sometimes wonder if I'm the right fit at all.)

G) The frantic pace of work makes me lose sight of my strengths, purpose, and passions.

H) It'd be good to rethink how I complement the other members of my team.

I) I'm often stuck with responsibilities that drag my energy down but don't know what to do instead.

J) I want to spend more time learning about the science of how to thrive, not just survive.

Learn more and get tickets HERE. $40 off on the second, third, fourth, and fifteenth person you bring from your organization. And if you can’t make it, might you have a Northern Californian friend who could benefit? Please share with them.

50 views0 comments


bottom of page