Skip to content
Technology & Innovation

3 Ways to Rise Above Reptilian Leadership

Just about everyone wants to believe that their leaders – in governments, companies, or even the local PTA – will exude benevolence. The shared hopes of constituents, shareholders, and even Costco members is that the people at the top get their notions about how to run things from an ethical place.

But what happens when the road to the metaphoric “enlightened” portion of the brain is blocked and decision makers find their way, instead, to the “reptilian” sector? This would seem to explain how Vladimir Putin deviated, fueling his decision to annex Crimea, stating that that region had always been part of Russia anyway.

Despite our higher aspirations for them, leaders are often seduced by power. Therefore, they act from the basest of motives in efforts to aggrandize their institutions, companies, and themselves in ways that run the gamut from theft of land, profits, and ideas. The “reptilian” portion of the human brain is, after all, tied to instinctual behaviors associated with aggression, domination, and territoriality. This trajectory describes Putin all too well.

Many leaders will counteract this scenario by citing there are certain boundaries they’d never cross. However, as a psychiatrist, I can say with certitude that many people holding executive power fall prey to the reptilian brain in another way: through seduction by other people’s reptilian techniques.

Reptilian manipulators are consummate tricksters who can be treacherously compelling. They know how to entice by offering what you yearn for, either personally or for your company – which is, after all, an extension of yourself. Once that happens, it’s usually very easy to rationalize compromising oneself to get what’s being offered. The bottom line is this: Don’t make a pact with these devils. Those reptilian tendencies are alive and well in these three manipulators:

1. Flatterers. Achieving a high office and appointment, which should be validation enough of one’s worth, doesn’t necessarily mean we still don’t ache for more praise. Flatterers get a charge out of having power over you and putting you in a dependent position. Like snake charmers, they play on your vulnerabilities and vanity, and tell you exactly what you want to hear. But typically, there’s little follow through to the promises they make.

The remedy? Insist that flatterers, be it your right hand or VP of sales, back up their hollow compliments or financial projections with actions, and insist they correct course. If they don’t, terminate them. Knowing your own vulnerabilities – where your ego typically needs psychological boosts – is your first step to recognizing flatterers’ strategies.

2. Intermittent reinforcers. The world of business is often run the way Las Vegas slot machines work. They pay irregularly – just enough to keep gamblers playing – and, although the pay-off date is unknown, the belief is one day it’ll come. Think of all the vendor promises that goad CEOs: price reductions in supplies, an influx of venture capital, more space for less money. I like to say that intermittent reinforcers offer morsels of high-quality affection to keep you seduced.

The solution is to demand clarification and definitive proposals and offerings. State your needs in a kind but firm tone with something as simple as, “Let’s meet to pin down a financial approach that works.” The adage – “Put it in writing” – has survived over time because it works.

3. Danglers. I’m sure even CEOs have to keep following up with certain people who schedule a meeting, fail to confirm, and simply drop off the face of the earth. It’s an age-old business problem. You think you’ve connected with a potential customer or supplier, and they disappear. In turn, you feel confused, and proceed to waste time trying to figure them out.

No one wants to risk losing a sale, but you can’t afford to tolerate people who vanish after making a connection to you. Acknowledging the strategy of these game players is especially significant if you’ve been guilty of such reptilian behavior yourself. The bottom line: don’t pursue anyone who doesn’t reciprocate.

To avoid being deceived, it’s imperative that leaders learn to recognize these manipulative techniques – the actions of other people’s reptilian brains. Wanting to see the best in people is one thing. Ensuring that people have your best business interests at heart depends on your vigilance.

* * * * *

Judith Orloff MD is author of a new book, The Ecstasy of Surrender: 12 Surprising Ways Letting Go Can Empower Your Life (April 1, 2014), upon which this article is based. An Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and New York Times bestselling author, Dr. Orloff teaches workshops nationwide, has given a TED talk on this book, and has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, Today, PBS, CNN, NPR, and many others. More information is at

Image credit: hin255/Shutterstock


Up Next