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Dare to Lead - and how primitive reflexes can interfere

I was driving back from Taunton last week and listening to the latest book from Brene Brown

- Dare to Lead. I’m a big fan of Brene Brown and her work on courage, shame and vulnerability. If you’re not familiar with her, her Ted Talk and subsequent Netflix Talk are excellent.

So, there I was listening to her latest book and she was talking about how, to be a good leader; you have to be vulnerable with your team, you have to properly listen, stay curious, keep confidential information and most importantly, be honest.

Honesty can be difficult because we want to be kind, but not being honest isn’t kind either, it’s often hurtful. How often have you heard people say that dishonesty is the most hurtful thing in personal as well as business relationships. Honesty is hard, because it requires a high level of vulnerability, dishonesty will quickly lose you trust. So to be honest, you have to be vulnerable, to be vulnerable you have to be courageous. You have to be able to drop defensive armour and be visible.

There are many techniques to help with this process but I am a neurodevelopment therapist and I work with integrating retained primitive reflexes and I am acutely aware of how retained primitive reflexes, especially retained primitive fear reflexes can interfere with this ambition of progressive leadership.

Primitive reflexes are interesting for a number of reasons, firstly we generally all still have them, to a greater or lesser extent. Secondly they affect our mental, emotional and physical function, and thirdly, no one has ever heard of them. In the simplest terms primitive reflexes are the innate impulses that keep us safe, help us feed and get us moving from a foetus in the womb to a confident walker. They emerge, do a particular job and then integrate into our central nervous system. If they remain active they can cause a huge number of problems.

As a Neurodevelopment Therapist, I usually work with children with processing issues such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia. However, because reflexes affect all areas of function i more recently have become interested in applying the theory and practice for business, particularly those who are or are seeking to be in positions of leadership.

Anything that gives us a greater understanding of ourselves and our colleagues can only be helpful, and awareness of our retained reflexes can give us an enormous amount of insight and understanding as to why people do what they do. All without having to get into deep psychoanalysis.

Coming back to leadership and vulnerability and primitive reflexes. At our earliest stages of development our first primitive reflexes to emerge are our fear reflexes. Fear Reflexes don’t necessarily make us fearful, but they can prevent us from feeling safe. Many anxiety disorders such as social anxiety and OCD may have active retained fear reflexes at their core. In day to day life mildly retained fear reflexes may not have a huge impact, but when put under pressure they can become more active. Closely linked with our freeze/fight/flight response, if these reflexes become activated then our limbic more primitive brain is in charge of us and our behaviour, and our higher functioning cortex takes a back seat. Consequently you or someone you work with may want to take a vulnerable and honest leadership role, but as soon as they feel challenged or under stress, if their fear reflexes are unintegrated, they will activate. This response is a reflex, there is no conscious control over it, and the sensation it triggers is of not feeling safe. If you don’t feel safe then you certainly can’t make your self feel less safe by then also being vulnerable. In this situation, however hard you may try and however much you may want to follow this model, once this reflex has triggered you have no more control than not being able to blink in a bright light.

The result of not feeling safe is that you may then exhibit controlling or manipulative behaviour, potentially becoming increasingly irritable with other people’s shortcomings. You may misinterpret facial expressions, misreading concern or sympathy as aggression. You may find sensory input over whelming and irritating, noise may suddenly feel too loud or intrusive, lights too bright, the temperature uncomfortable. Or you may find that you are unable to speak or make eye contact or make decision because you’re suddenly super aware that you could be wrong and thus make a fool of yourself. You may see these types of behaviours in your team.

Having the understanding that this is a reflex response, and not just difficult behaviour is of itself easier to manage. We can get away from what are often referred to as personality issues and work instead with the understanding that this is an activated reflex response. Then we can look at specific ways of being able to calm that response.

This is what a neurodevelopment program cab help with. In the short term one of the simplest methods, most often used and known, is deep diaphragmatic treating where the out breath is longer than the in-breath. This switches the system from fight/flight to rest/digest. If you combine this with the knowledge as to why we respond as we do in the first place, understanding how our primitive reflexes impact our response, then we give ourselves the power to lead differently and to encourage effective leadership in our teams. Imagine the results for effectiveness within the workplace for individuals and for teams.

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If you would like to know more then please contact me


am available for private consultations as well as being available to speak at at meetings and conferences to introduce teams to the power of understanding primitive reflexes.

I also run courses in Rhythmic Movement Training, a primitive reflex integration program, please check my website or Facebook Page for details


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