On January 15, 2009, Chesley Burnett Sullenberger – widely known as “Sully” – landed an A320 plane on the Hudson River.

Did you listen to the conversation with air traffic control since?

Despite the seriousness of the situation, there’s impressive self-control from the pilot. Through the long minutes of the emergency landing, it’s all about coming up with the best option.

The ability to respond to a crisis is the strongest quality of a wise leader. But if you want to expand your leadership boundaries and reach that level, you need to learn to rely on knowledge instead of emotions. Because that makes your decisions impactful.

How? Learn to respond instead of react.

Of course, accessing a response when you’re in the heat of the moment is not an easy task. Unless you create a discernment gap – and we’re going to explore how.

Note. If you’ve read the first part of this post and don’t need a refresher, jump to the second part here.


Why do we react?


Reaction is the oldest survival mechanism. A stressful situation = instant change in your neurochemistry = a signal to your brain to drive you to either fight or flight.

OK, we’ve evolved since “caveman times”. But our brains still can’t tell the difference between modern stress and a predator about to eat you. And that’s how we, as modern humans, end up using the wrong system in the wrong moment!

When your emotional circuits are fired up for fight or flight, your actions don’t rely on specific knowledge. Your brain blocks performance and therefore you don’t use logic, problem solving or any advanced brain mechanism. Not good at all if you want to expand your leadership boundaries!


Fight or flight switched on = problem solving or any advanced brain mechanism is not accessible


Result: you get short in your response. You’re not in a position to decide consciously how to address the situation, because your inner chemistry is doing it for you. As you get emotional, so do your responses. You can’t override your default reactions. Your communication is poor. You’re short-sighted. You jump to conclusions.

This is pure reaction; using the first set of thoughts occurring in your reptilian brain.


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Learn to respond instead


On the other hand, a response comes from a place of quiet clarity.

It doesn’t mean you’re not impacted by what happens, or upset, or mad at the problem. But you don’t let circumstances (or others) dictate how you show up in a situation, what you decide, and how you act. And that’s exactly the type of behaviour that will drive you to you expand your leadership boundaries.

When you’re able to create a gap between the situation and what you can do about it, you give space to the logic part of your brain. And then access knowledge, insight, words or whatever you need to reclaim control of your train of thought.

Related: How to clear your mind and avoid toxic distractions

Your “reset button” could be 10 deep breaths. It could be a quick body scan, a “tap ritual” or just telling yourself: “watch out, that’s chemistry happening there”.

That’s why we call it a discernment gap. You detect a stress trigger, acknowledge you’re at risk of reaction, and make a conscious choice to stabilise yourself before you go any further. That’s the basic process for learning to respond vs. react.


Discernment gap = spot a stress trigger, choose to stabilise yourself before you go any further


Result? You park emotions and focus on facts. As you engage the area of your brain responsible for logical thinking, your responses come from a place of knowledge. You are precise and rational. Without the burden of emotions, your communication improves (humans argue less about facts than their perception of the situation). You focus better, get perspective and anticipate wider issues.

You get to decide what you do next without being clouded by your emotions. This opens space for you to go beyond the now and expand your leadership boundaries.


The secret to expanding your leadership boundaries


In a response, there’s little room for the story of what IS happening. The chat looks like: “OK, this is the situation”. This is what we need to fix. And these are our options for doing it”.

When Sully mastered the Hudson landing, the conversation revolved around scenarios. And if it looks like it was prepared, that’s because they did plan crisis management in advance.

That’s the ninja trick you need to know to expand your leadership boundaries.

The best time to look for solutions is not in the heat of the battle. It’s when you’re emotionally detached, so that you can understand what the best response is that’s accessible to you. That’s why it’s important to get familiar with your triggers, think about what could go wrong and learn how to take risks safely.


The best time to look for solutions is when you’re emotionally detached


For instance, one of my mentees finds difficult conversations stressful. She knows that her main risk is getting into a passive-aggressive argument where she could end up being snappy. Therefore, she pre-positions each meeting by announcing the topic and questions. And she speaks to her mentor beforehand to prepare the conversation.

When you’ve rehearsed what you’re going to do next, your brain is in familiar space. It is not distracted by what could happen, why we ended up there or, worse, whose fault it is.

There’s less stress happening there. And less stress enables neural access to focus on the best possible outcome. You unlock experience and have the mind space to analyse facts. You tap into emotional intelligence and your communication becomes highly connected. Your insight expands and so does your leadership.


Rehearsing your options = a focused brain using mind space to expand your insights


Going deeper: show others how to learn to respond


Expanding your leadership boundaries is one thing. But the majority of a leader’s job is helping others do the same.

You will inevitably face situations where you need to give people access to their own discernment gap if they can’t find it themselves.

It’s an incredible asset to help people stay calm at work. Not only are you empathetic and focused on developing others, but you get the power to defuse arguments and make the conversation powerful.

Watch out for emotional responses or signs of irritation in non-verbal communication. Scan the room and assess if one defensive behaviour affects other protagonists. Use your intuition; if things don’t feel quite right, there’s probably something brewing up!


A response results in empathetic and productive conversations


Be empathetic by stopping the conversation if need be. Offer a break to give people space to clear their minds and access both knowledge and experience. A wise leader does not discount others’ feelings, but stays firm, bringing the discussion back to facts and solutions.

By emulating self-control, you show everyone that there’s nothing personal in a disagreement (most of the time). You expand your leadership boundaries at another level; you bring everyone back to purpose and goals instead of focusing on differences.


Powerful leaders know why responding is better than reacting as they work at expanding leadership boundaries. If you’re on that development track, remember that your brain doesn’t multitask; you can’t get high on emotions and high on intellect!

– If you react, you’ll add to the drama of the situation without offering anything useful to resolve the problem.

– But if you create a discernment gap by moving away from the emotional, you access experience and the most performant area of your brain.

Situations might come up, but there’s a way to prevent them turning into problems. And that’s what will determine the outcome at the end; escalating the drama, or mediation and resolution.

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