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Leadership Lessons #6: Dopamine

Arvid Buit | 27 May 2020

We are going to talk about something really exciting today. Because it is all about pleasure and happiness. Something most people strive for on a daily basis. But what is it?!
Being a leader makes you feel extremely safe and secure

In one of the previous episodes we have talked about symbiosis. It is all about unconditional love and recognition. But concluding from this, you understand there is also something called ‘conditional love and recognition’. You might think you love your spouse unconditionally. But what if he of she gains 80 pounds in weight? Or gets brain injured from a car accident? Or decides to have an affair?   Love is almost always conditional, other than from parent to child. Inside our brain, is this little walnut. Not really a walnut, but more or less the same size. It is called the nucleus accumbens. This brain centre is basically all about pleasure. Every rush, every kick, every sense of happiness; gives you a dopamine shot. And that feels extremely good. But it is, no matter what enlightened Buddhists will try to make you believe, a temporary feeling. No joy and happiness lasts forever. The wonderful thing with this brain center, is that it not only responds to real success, but also to the idea of imagination of success.   So let’s make another mental image of this walnut floating in front of you. It is all about pleasure and responds to success and recognition, or the idea of success and recognition. But you can also lower the dopamine levels inside. Simply with stress and frustration.   As we have talked about in the last article about oxytocine, leaders are scoring low on this and often show insecurity and a feeling of being unsafe. This is why their dopamine intake is often on a low scale. And this, on it’s own turn creates an incredibly urge and hunger to receive a dopamine shot. You could say, the neuro-chemical blueprint of leaders is like a hungry dog running after a bone. Extremely in need of dopamine and triggering of the nucleus accumbens.   A leader, by definition, has a under-triggered walnut inside his or her head. This might be because of a biological defect, or because the levels of dopamine are low because of stress and frustration. But how do they cope with this?   First of all they are responding very well to conditional recognition. Everything that exists of status, money, sex, hierarchy and success. In the moment it makes them feel absolutely great. Until the levels lower. Because this walnut inside their head is not triggered all the time, they feel unhappy a lot of the time.   That might sound a bit depressing to you, but to them it is the drive, the urgency if you wish, to create success. It is the motor of their being. An internal flame burning and bursting around, just to become happy in the moment once more. It is like a heroine addiction. And that is not really ment as a joke. Because the nucleus accumbens is very happy to replace real recognition and succes with alcohol or drug abuse, or even better with endorphine. These things have exactly the same outcome as the real recognition. It makes you feel very good.   Endorphine is a word consisting of two important words: ‘morphine’ – you might know this as a sedative medicating drug, and ‘endo’, which means ‘from within’. So endorphine, is a kind of pain medication you are making from inside your own body. And how do you do this? With extreme sports and risky events. So people are running marathons, or even better: Iron Man’s. They are bungy-jumping and parachute flying through their lives.   If you are familiar with leaders, you might recognise the things I have just explained. A CEO of a company is always looking for the next success and kick. He or she also is very disciplined in sports and tends to do this in an obsessive and extreme way. Or, as a substitute for this, they like a drink now and then. Or let’s say rather NOW than then. It is not because they are sensitive to addictions themselves, but because their nucleus accumbens is under-triggered and it makes them feel depressed and unhappy.   Dopamine is the happiness hormone and leaders tend to score low on this. It makes them feel this fire within to use as fuel for change and urgency. It also makes them hungry for success. And if there is no immediate success to enjoy, they will most likely substitute this with alcohol and drug abuse, or extreme sports and risk taking.  

Leadership Lessons

For now let’s see what the main lessons are about dopamine:
  • Dopamine is the happiness hormone
  • It is perceived inside the nucleus accumbens, a walnut sized piece in the centre of our brain
  • Stress and frustration will lower the dopamine levels
  • Success and recognition will up the dopamine levels
  • If there is no real dopamine to enjoy, people will trigger the nucleus accumbens with alcohol and drug abuse, or by doing extreme sports and taking risks, and with this creating endorphins.
  Read Casestudy with Eric: Leadership and alcohol abuse to learn more.   If you would like to know more about dopamine, endorphine and leadership, feel free to send me an e-mail or add me as a connection on LinkedIn and ask your questions.   The next subject we will discuss in this series is: Psychological Schripts.