Fight or Flight Leadership

In my work with organizations and leaders, it is impossible not to note the symmetry between the fight or flight reactions of the most primitive parts of our brain with the instincts of organizations and leaders under stress.  Millions of years of evolution formed the frontal lobe in our brains responsible for more deliberate planning and mature thinking.  Outstanding leaders and organizations seem to have the ability to slow things down to utilize their frontal lobes.  However, many organizations and leaders have a tendency to regress into a reflexive mindset that prevents them from more rationale and longer-range planning and thinking.

To better draw this comparison, let us first examine how our brain operates. Research shows that when the hypothalamus, a part of the limbic1 nervous system, tells the sympathetic2 nervous system to kick into gear, the overall effect is that the body speeds up, tenses up, and becomes generally very alert. The sympathetic nervous system sends out impulses to glands and smooth muscles and tells the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) into the bloodstream.

The sudden flood of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dozens of other hormones causes changes in the body which include: an increase in heart rate and blood pressure; pupil dilation; constriction of veins in the skin, sending more blood to major muscle groups; increase in blood-glucose level; tensing up of muscles; relaxation of smooth muscle, allowing increase of oxygen into the lungs; the shut-down of nonessential systems (like digestion and immune system) to allow more energy for emergency functions; and increase in trouble on focusing on small tasks, helping the brain focus more directly on where the threat is coming from.3

These physical responses are intended to help survival of a dangerous situation by preparing you to either fight for your life (“fight”) or run for your life (“flight”). Much like the release of hormones commanded by the hypothalamus, organizations and leaders also generate instinctual commands to perceived threats and conditions that often produce suboptimal long-term results.

In 2000, when Pfizer decided to pursue a hostile takeover of Warner Lambert and the management of Warner Lambert resisted, they decided to take a win at any cost strategy.  At stake for Pfizer was the perceived loss of control in a co-marketing alliance of Lipitor which was accurately projected to be a multi-billion drug.  The Pfizer machinery went into a war-like stance.  Its organizational blood stream increased its flow, its pupils dilated, and all non-essential and distracting activities were put on hold. An army of several hundred lawyers were unleashed and money became no object.  In its haste to win, Pfizer missed the “enhanced severance package” provision at Warner Lambert.  A poison pill put in place by the previous CEO dictated that change of control would trigger compensation packages of up to 36 months of salary with maximum bonuses and immediate vesting of stock options for any leader whose job duties changed.  Pfizer’s fight instincts allowed it to win control of Warner Lambert.  However, by not slowing down to allow for more reflective and rational thinking, Pfizer spent millions more in enhanced severance packages than expected.  In addition, the best laid plans of Pfizer management and its lead merger consultancy Booz Allen to realize the cost savings associated with synergies of combining the two organizations, were significantly delayed or put aside since meaningful structural or job duty changes automatically triggered further financially crippling enhanced severance packages.

Leaders also get emotionally hijacked under stress, in effect assuming the fight or flight stance. It is precisely at these moments of inordinate stress and urgency that great leaders rise to the top, and the sub-optimal leaders revert to the more primitive parts of their brains.

This leadership quality was demonstrated during the height of the Cold War through the example of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces. On September 26, 1983, he was the duty officer at the command center, monitoring early-warning satellites over the United States. When the system reported that a nuclear missile was being launched from the United States, Petrov was situated at a critical point in the chain of command, overseeing the staff the monitored these incoming signals. Despite the electronic evidence, he declared the system’s indication to be a false alarm. This tense decision, made under enormous stress, is credited with having prevented an unprovoked retaliatory nuclear attack on the United States and its NATO allies that could have resulted in large-scale nuclear war. A later investigation confirmed that the satellite warning system had indeed malfunctioned, and had he reported incoming American missiles, his superiors might have launched an assault against the United States, precipitating a corresponding nuclear response from the United States. At that, time according to experts, the US–Soviet relationship had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system — not just the Kremlin, not just Andropov, not just the KGB — but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on trigger alert — very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents. The false alarm that rang on Petrov’s watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense time for US–Soviet relations. At that time, according to Oleg D. Kalugin, a former KGB chief of foreign counterintelligence, “the danger was in the Soviet leadership thinking, the Americans may attack, so we better attack first.” Petrov clearly accessed the frontal lobes of his brain to regulate himself for more rational action rather than allowing the more primitive limbic nervous system to highjack his emotions (Amygdala hijack).4


1. Limbic – evolutionarily primitive brain structures (

2. Sympathetic – involved in the stimulation of activities that prepare the body for action (

3. Understanding the Stress Response. Harvard Health Publications. ( March 2011.

4. Hoffman D. I Had a Funny Feeling in My Gut. Cold War Report. ( February 1999.

Questions for Online Conversation:

  1. Have you noticed which part of your brain is triggered under stress?
  2. What is your strategy for arresting “limbic highjack”
  3. How have recent examples of corporations, such as General Motors’ cover up of faulty ignition switches, reflected leadership under stress?

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

2 Responses to Fight or Flight Leadership

  1. http://terrillkcmays.Wordpress.Com says:

    I’m not sure where you’re getting your info, but great topic.
    I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more.
    Thanks for fantastic info I was looking for this info for my mission.

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