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November 19th, 2021

Your Brain At Work LIVE – S6:E09 – Compassion Wins at War and in the Office

Calls for empathetic leadership are on the rise in organizations. A new survey connects lack of empathy to the reason 54% of people recently quit their jobs. Empathy is a nuanced and often misunderstood term. When actually, compassion is what teams need. Compassion is when one’s desire to help becomes an impactful response. It’s the difference between telling someone you care and actually showing them.

On this episode, Steve Miska, a retired US Army Colonel & Author shares his experience working with Iraqi interpreters during the war and the unexpected lessons on the value of compassion. Ultimately sharing stories that transcend the battlefield and translate directly into workplace leadership today.

Episode Transcript





[00:00:03] SW: Welcome back to season six, episode nine of Your Brain at Work podcast. Calls for empathetic leadership are on the rise in organizations. A new survey connects lack of empathy to the reason 54% of people recently quit their jobs. Empathy is a nuanced and often misunderstood term, when actually compassion is what teams need. Compassion is when one’s desire to help becomes an impactful response. It’s the difference between telling someone you care and actually showing them. 


On this episode, Steve Miska, a retired US Army colonel and author, shares his experience working with Iraqi interpreters during the war, and the unexpected lessons on the value of compassion, ultimately sharing stories that transcend the battlefield and translate directly into workplace leadership today. 


I’m Shelby Wilburn, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw episodes from our weekly Friday webinar series. This week our show is a conversation between Dr. David Rock, CEO and cofounder of the NeuroLeadership Institute; and Steve Miska, retired US Army colonel and author. Enjoy.




[00:01:12] SW: Today’s guest is a distinguished colonel who retired after 25 years of service in the US Army. He holds degrees from Cornell University, National Defense University, and West Point. He served in the Obama White House as director for Iraq on the National Security Council. And in 2007, on his second of three combat tours, he led the team that established an underground railroad for dozens of interpreters from Baghdad, to Amman, to the United States. His book, Baghdad Underground Railroad, chronicles this story. Currently, he serves as Executive Director of First Amendment Voice and is the founder of Servant Leader Citizen Consulting, Inc. 


Please give a warm welcome to our guest, Colonel Steve Miska. Steve, it’s so great to have you here today. 


[00:01:54] SM: Thanks, Shelby. It’s an honor to join you. 


[00:01:58] SW: Yes, we’re happy to have you. And our leader for today’s discussion, an Aussie turn New Yorker who coined the term neuro leadership when he cofounded NLI over two decades ago. With a professional doctorate, four successful books under his name, and a multitude of bylines, ranging from Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and many more, a warm welcome as I pass the virtual mic to the cofounder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, Dr. David Rock. Off to you, David. 


[00:02:24] DR: Thanks very much. Thanks, Shelby, for the warm welcome introduction. Great to have you back. I look forward to this conversation. Thanks very much. Steve, it’s a pleasure meeting you. And it’s a privilege to get some time to talk with you. Thank you for your service. Now, you’ve had quite an incredible distinguished career. And we’re delighted to get you this week in honor of Veterans Day yesterday. 


Tell us a little bit about your background. We had a quick chat earlier, and you’ve got a really eclectic background. Interesting blend. Tell us a little bit about kind of your career path firstly before we dig into the big things. 


[00:02:51] SM: Sure. As Shelby noted, I started off at West Point. So I’ve been in and out of academia over my 25 years in service, both teaching as well as a fellow or a student in different programs. I am a practitioner by heart, though, by blood, I guess, nature. So I can only do about two or three years in academia and then I need to go get my hands dirty again. 


Went to Iraq in 2004 on the first of three different combat deployments. And then I came back to DC and did three combat deployments in Washington, DC, which was a whole another type of experience. So feel free to ask me about any of that. 


[00:03:33] DR: That’s great. Thanks very much. There’s an interesting flag behind you. Tell me the story of that. 


[00:03:39] SM: In Baghdad, at the height of sectarian cleansing, anybody working alongside of Americans was being targeted and killed by adversaries on many different sides. And our interpreters were really the face of those Iraqis. They were our cultural eyes, ears and mouthpieces. We realized quickly that if we didn’t do something to try to protect them or get them out of harm’s way, they probably weren’t going to be around, and we couldn’t look ourselves in the mirror. 


So as I was leaving, this is sort of at the tail end of the underground railroad, where we had gotten dozens of interpreters to the United States, they wanted a thorough party. They presented me with this flag of all the interpreters who were still there in their names that they signed on the flag. And so that hung in my office every day. It took me five years to write Baghdad Underground Railroad. But when I came in, and I saw that flag on the wall, it was the inspiration for me to keep writing. 


[00:04:40] DR: That’s a beautiful story. Let’s dig into that story a little bit. It’s hard for us to imagine it. And, certainly, I know for myself, hard to imagine kind of how you deal with the level of kind of danger that’s always there. And in particular, you’re leaning into maybe the most difficult thing, which where you experienced kind of the most threat. Was it like trying to establish trust when people are in this survival mode? We would call it level three threat. Level three threat is where the amygdala hi-jack a lot, and you can hardly think straight at all. Level two is kind of you’re distracted and frazzled. And level one, you actually just focused. People in that kind of environment or at level three a lot. I mean, what’s it like to try and establish trust with people who are that anxious and literally fearing for the life? 


[00:05:20] SM: It’s interesting, as you describe the different levels. I haven’t heard those descriptions before. And I think part of our military training is when things go sideways, as we will say, and it gets to a level three type situation, how do we regain our composure to be able to think as if we were in level one, even though it’s so dangerous? That’s a huge part of why we train and how we train. And as we bring on our Afghan, or Iraqi, or wherever we happen to find ourselves, our partners in conflict zones, they become part of that training as well. 


So, for example, before every patrol out the gate, we would come together and go through various contingencies and talk about how do we respond if X, Y or Z happens, and sort it out amongst ourselves beforehand. 


[00:06:14] DR: Interesting, it’s slight digression. But we call that an if-then plan, literally. And we teach people and organizations to build if-then plans, or as you call them, contingencies. These are dozens of years of research behind this. The academic term is an implementation intention. What we’ve seen for the research is when you have a really concrete, if and a concrete then, the two have to be quite specific. Then when that situation occurs, when the if occurs out in the world, your brain naturally sees it much more. It’s like, “Oh, it knows exactly what to do.” There’s all this research that you get a massive bump in the likelihood of enacting the plan if you’ve got the concrete in from the concrete then. But it has to be quite specific. 


So in a workplace setting, it’s not like if I’m leading a team, try to be more inclusive. It’s more like if someone asks a question, and I have an answer, and I’m the leader, answer it last after everyone else. Very specific. And that’s what I’m hearing you guys, the same thing, men or women in the service there are developing these contingency plans. So really, you don’t have to think in the heat of the moment about it. 


[00:07:13] SM: Let me give you a good example. So I spent the first half of my career jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. And as you can imagine, lots of things can go bad in a high-stress environment like that. As a young officer, a First Lieutenant at the time, so I had a couple years of experience in my unit in the Republic of Panama. We were jumping out of a helicopter for a VIP job. A member of congress had come down and our commanding general wanted him to jump with us, which is a very unusual situation. 


We had gone through the contingencies. And as we were flying in over the Pacific Ocean to the drop zone, everything seemed fine. We had people on the ground set. We had boats in the water in case somebody landed in the water and we needed to rescue them. As the jumpmaster, I was in charge, and I would count people and space them off at the air helicopter as they were jumping off the ramp. The number three jumper went as everything was going fine. And I heard in my headset, “We have a problem.” 


And I had just told the number for a jumper to go. And I turned back to the ramp and looked off the ramp and I saw what the problem was. The third jumper was being towed and just flapping off the ramp. His static line hadn’t released the parachute so he could fall free. Super dangerous situation. In an Air Force aircraft, it’s almost always a fatality. 


Luckily, we were on a helicopter, a rotary wing aircraft. And so at the time, this did not faze me at all, because we had trained for it. And I had a knife in my boot. I could reach down, cut him free if we needed to. But that was not the first contingency we talked through. The pilots and I had talked through we’re going to do a circle and land with the jumper. So as soon as his feet hit the ground, he can pop free and get away. 


Three hours after that incident, after everything was fine, during it, no problems whatsoever. We were communicating well. Three hours afterwards, I got the worst adrenaline rush in my life, realizing that somebody could have been killed. It was my responsibility. And the training helped keep that at bay, that natural response at bay, until you know it was a better moment. 


[00:09:41] DR: Until three hours later. 


[00:09:41] SM: Yeah. Yeah. 


[00:09:42] DR: Thank you, brain and body. Good job. You managed to hack your systems to be adaptive in the moment. That’s such a great story. So thanks for sharing that. I think it will speak for all of us. And I got goosebumps hearing that story. I’ve jumped out of a perfectly good plane once. There’s a lot of practicing and contingencies. I’ve actually been learning to fly a plane for the last few years. And it’s all about contingencies. It’s all about not having to make a decision in the moment, because you can’t in a level 3 threat, right? 


And I’ll go into that framework, just one click down, as it was a question about maybe just for you. The three levels of threat. Firstly, it’s a really useful framework, because it’s so simple, because there’s only three things that the brain can kind of chunk things into three really easily. It becomes something you use a lot. And if it was even four or five levels, it’s that much more cognitive load to try to work out which level you are. But it’s simple enough that you end up using it all the time. 


And we actually taught this to the police forces last year. We built a de-escalation training that we ran for the police for agencies around the country. Actually gave that away free after the George Floyd incident as our way of kind of trying to act boldly. And it was a really fascinating journey. What we discovered was, in the police anyway, they practice escalating, and everything they taught is actually about escalating. And they had no language at all for people’s mental state. 


And we told them the three levels of threat, and the feedback we got was it was amazingly helpful, because they started to understand that either themselves or the person they’re interacting with could be literally not able to think at all, and that you’ve got to do really different things when you’re in that state. It’s not that the person is aggressive or angry. They just literally can’t process your words. They’re in so much of a threat state. When we explained that kind of biologically, they found it really, really helpful. They said, “Okay, so now we’re going to learn to de-escalate. Not just escalate.” 


But the levels are based on research from a scientist named Dean Mobbs. And other people have done it, but he’s sort of the most interesting studies. And he basically looked at the amygdala and other threat regions in different threat conditions. And what he found was that a big variable was how close or far away a threat was. And that the closest could be in time, like happening now. Or it could be in physical distance, similar to what we call a distance bias, which is sort of the importance of things as based on how close or far away they are. 


But what he found was that threat wasn’t in a continuum. It had more of a quanta feeling where there were three quite different types of responses. I mean, it’s a more complex model. There’s really five. But we simplified it to three, because you could use it now. And the first level is one that’s actually adaptive for doing focusing kind of work, but not adaptive for creative work. But it’s a design we use a lot when we sort of remember a deadline and we suddenly focus and switch everything off, right? It’s good. We can do pretty good performance. In fact, maybe our best sometimes. That’s level one. So you’re basically alert, but not alarmed. So it’s like you maybe hear a noise, but way off in the distance if you’re out in the field. It’s like, “Well, there could be some people. It could be the enemy. But they’re like a few miles away. So let’s be careful. But let’s not like stop what we’re doing.” That’s level one. So your brains detecting a distant but possible threat, but you’re in control. 


Level two is that the threat has become close enough that it could be a mortal danger, but you don’t actually know yet. So now it’s like your alarm system kicks in. You’re alert system goes way up, but your alarm system now kicks in. So your heart rates up. Your cortisol is going up. Your immune systems going down. All these things sort of preparing to save resources for running. 


Unfortunately, a level two, your perception is degraded. Working memory is degraded. Decision making is degraded. Social cognition is degraded. All these things are degraded because of the resources going to the motor and premotor cortex, right? 


And then level three is the amygdala hijack. That’s the full-blown threat response. And if you think of working memory or kind of executive function and threat response, they’re in a bit of a seesaw. So when your threat response is really high at level three, you’ve got very little ability to process new information in that moment. 


Level two, though, you still have quite a degradation. But level one, you’re good. So I think the way you described it is amazing, that what you’ve got to do is practice things so that when you’re in a high-threat state, you don’t need to think. You’ve got the plan. What do you think leaders should practice then? Business leaders? They don’t jump out of helicopters. What are the kinds of things? Let’s brainstorm for a minute. What kinds of things should lead us practice?


[00:14:01] SM: It to how to manage your cognitive state, right? It’s if you sense that a conversation or maybe a discussion in a meeting is veering into the emotional realm, if the leader can objectively sit back and not get caught up in the emotions and help frame whatever the conflict is. In a way where people can at least agree on what the conflict is, there might be competing values that different sides are arguing. Then they can have a discussion and at least feel heard. And a leader needs to be the one who’s facilitating that discussion without so much as directing it, if that makes sense. At least [inaudible 00:14:46] my style.


[00:14:48] DR: Absolutely. Yeah. From a brain perspective, what’s happening is you’re taking something that’s kind of uncertain, and uncertainty creates threat, and you’re bringing some certainty to it in the form of language, which increases your sense of certainty, and autonomy, and control. That what you’re doing is labeling what’s happening without going kind of into the situation. You’re giving it a label. And what it does is it activates – This research showing that activates the brain’s braking system, switches down the threat response, switches up the prefrontal by just kind of putting a label on what’s going on without actually opening and opening the debate. It’s a really helpful first step when threats are high. But you’ve got me thinking – And I want to go into compassion and empathy stuff in a minute. But you’ve got to be thinking about the kinds of really critical situations leaders should be like practicing, practicing are probably like the really tough conversations, the really difficult, that take a lot of courage.


[00:15:39] SM: Absolutely. And so First Amendment Voice, we do a lot in a difficult conversation space, with one of our partners, [inaudible 00:15:46] Barry, who I described as a recovering Silicon Valley executive, but he’s just brilliant in terms of how to explore that space. But from my consulting background, the vast majority of organizations, the mediocre organizations that are in the middle, just shy away from conflict, right? They don’t engage in conflict. And then you’ve got the lower tier who are dysfunctional and don’t know how to deal with a conflict. But the high-performing organizations manage conflict well. And those are the ones that understand where the competing values are. And they can have the discussions that include enough compassion for everybody at least to feel heard and then be onboard.


[00:16:31] DR: So let’s talk about that, compassion, empathy. I mean, you obviously must have had a lot of empathy and compassion for these people to risk your own life and maybe other people to do something. I mean, we think of – We’ve just been writing about this recently. We had a piece come out last week in Fast Company, or this week in Fast Company Magazine, kind of talking about compassion as the thing to focus on. It’s sort of a noisy space. Empathy is really a number of different things. It has many different meanings, interpretations. There’s an automatic part, which is kind of almost like mirror neurons and sort of automatically feeling something. There’s an effortful part, which is called perspective taking. We’ve done some big research on that. That’s the sort of heart of it. That’s like really understanding someone. 


The compassion piece is a little bit different. It’s not just sort of automatic or cognitive. It’s active. So the way we’ve been thinking about compassion is that it’s like you’ve got a little bit of the sensing and thinking, but it’s acting. And so from that perspective, you had incredible compassion in risking yours and other’s lives to help these people get to the US. Tell us about the importance of compassion, your experience of it, what drove you to it? Tell us about some of those stories there.


[00:17:39] SM: Sure. Yeah. A lot of that, for me, comes from some of the modeling that from my mother, in many cases, and others in my upbringing. But in Iraq, in particular, with these young men and women serving alongside of us, they were taking more risk than we were. My family was safe back in Germany. We were based out of Germany. And so we were deployed into Iraq. And so it’s a huge difference in terms of risk factors when I know my family is okay. 


But by virtue of them going on patrol, that’s every day, their families are at risk. Even in my book, I still have to use their [inaudible 00:18:22]. Because if I use their real names, their families could be located based on tribal affiliation, and then they start receiving death threats and other things happen. And so that compassion, in a lot of ways, stems from the ethos, which we instill in our men and women in service of leave no one behind. And as we go out into harm’s way together, we share those high-risk environments together, these bonds form and they become as much a part of the team as any American.


[00:18:57] DR: Right. That’s interesting. A couple of winters ago before the craziness happened. I was in Colorado. I was invited to present some research to the people designing leadership programs across many of the different armed forces. So there was intelligence there as well, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines and others. And they were kind of the people in charge of designing and thinking about leadership. And it was at this amazing headquarters like in the middle of nowhere. It looked like Stark had built it. I don’t know if you know it. It’s the Air Force headquarters. It’s quite incredible. This is sort of hidden secret base that really literally looks like it’s from outer space. Someone had a lot of fun building it. 


But anyway, I was doing this session and I sort of went in there a little bit cynical, I have to admit. Like, “What are they teaching?” But I’ve sort of went in curious with an open mind. And for the first half of the day I just sat and listened and look through all the kind of materials and listen to all the presentations. And I was actually really blown away by the focus of the work, which was a huge amount of it was actually about ethics. And what they were trying to do is instill – Like work out how to instill authentic ethics in people across all the forces. And that’s kind of what we ended up talking about a lot for the day. And I was really surprised by that. 


But they we’re talking about a big piece of that is how do you get people whose sort of very self-focused to be much more sort of selfless and let go of that and be part of the team and serve the greater good? We’re talking a lot about that and other things. But can you speak to kind of – I know you’ve been on the teaching side at West Point and others? What’s the role of ethics in the service? How important is it? And how do you guys teach it? Tells us a little bit more about it?


[00:20:28] SM: Yeah, it starts early on in the education process, where we start with everything from just war theory. Because at the end of the day, we’re trying to teach people to do something, to train them to do something which is very unnatural for human beings, right? To reflexively pull a trigger in a very challenging, maybe uncertain, unclear situation. 


One of my colleagues at West Point, Pete Kilner, teaches moral injury. And he teaches on the aftermath side of that, right? Because we do a good job training to respond in those situations. But we’ve just really started emphasizing what do we do afterwards? And that’s what I used to talk to a lot of my soldiers about when we were going into harm’s way. Together, I would ask, “Who wants to win?” And I’d see everybody’s hand go up, right? And I’d say, “Well, let me describe what it looks like. And it’s not a John Wayne movie. In many of these situations, it will be unclear. And I’m not telling you not to respond with force, if necessary, but just know when you do, you’re going to live with the consequences of that for the rest of your life. We will all deal with that.”


[00:21:46] DR: It’s a really big thing. Is empathy and compassion sort of something that is being taught in there? And sort of how do they think about it? What’s the sort of frame? 


[00:21:56] SM: Yeah, I think it absolutely is, although you won’t see it explicit. Although, I’ve been using it with my team on the Afghanistan evacuation side of things very explicitly, because I think it was necessary. But with young men and women who are coming in and they’re coming in with a bit of idealism, there’s a path to, I think, compassion that takes some time. And it starts with a lot of discipline first.


[00:22:27] DR: Right, right. It’s kind of tricky, because there’re these two kind of networks that are a little bit of a seesaw, a little bit like threat. And this is other network that sort of in competition with each other. And it’s actually the network for being goal-focused. Hitting your sales targets, or getting over that hill. Like when you’ve got a goal that’s really important, you’re activating more of the lateral regions of the prefrontal. It’s a conceptual network. You’re holding a picture in mind, perhaps in the visual cortex. You’ve got a motivational component of it. You’re picturing the end. And that’s pulling you forward with the release of various chemicals. 


But goal focus is a particular network. Now, obviously, business leaders, particularly more senior ones, often have very strong goal focus networks. Meaning they can take a very distant goal, it’s very subtle, that other people might hardly be able to understand, and they’re able to make it feel really close to motivate themselves. They’re able to make it feel more tangible. That, a successful leader, they say, you can see things that other people can’t see yet. But that’s also known as crazy, by the way. You literally see things other people can’t. 


But you’ve got this really robust goal focus network. To take subtle things. And you’re much better at conceptualizing that. Just like a musician has rich musical networks. But what happens is, when you have that goal focus network on, there’s a lot of evidence that, in just about every situation, turns down the network for people. And there’s a network of people that’s in the medial prefrontal. And really, it’s many other parts of the brain, but they’re seeing the default network active. Their default network is kind of what’s always on. But there’s this people focus network, when that’s on, you recognize people’s emotions faster. You’re more accurate with all types of social cognition, and you’re essentially thinking about yourself and other people and how you all connect. And you absolutely have to be in this people focus network to have any kind of empathy or, certainly, compassion, although it’s an interesting concept. 


But what we found is that people who spend a huge amount of time being goal-focused often don’t have well developed people networks, because they just haven’t developed them. And vice versa, there are people who you think are amazing at relationships and stuff. They can’t seem to get their life together. Can’t set a goal and kind of get things done. So there’s people who spent a lot of time in one or the other. 


In the leadership literature, there’s a very small percentage of people who are strong or even medium strong in both. And I think, to some degree, the armed forces might, just like sort of companies probably selects the goal focus in many ways. And in some ways that switches down to people networks over time, and they’re rewarded for being really goal-focused.


And then as you go out in general organizations in the public sector, as you go up the ranks, the need for people skills actually goes up when you haven’t really developed the capability. So you suddenly kind of need those people skills a whole lot more. And I guess it’s the same in the armed forces. As you go up, you actually need the people skills more than the technical skills. And so you want to intervene. Any thoughts or reactions to that? 


[00:25:18] SM: Yeah. I think you need to balance between the two. Well, I know, me personally, I tend to heavily weigh on the people side of things. I’ve always just had the philosophy as a leader that if I take care of my team, there’s no mission they can’t accomplish, right? I just need to get out of their way and cheerlead. And taking care of the team is not just training and discipline. It’s giving them opportunity for self-actualization, right? And growth, and inspiration in many ways. 


But, also, my job is to understand the vision, or the mission, or the goals, right? And to be able to translate that into something meaningful today, right? And that’s super hard to do, right? If you look in a counterinsurgency environment, day-to-day looks very mundane and very repetitive for the average soldier, where they’re going on patrol, or they’re standing watch in a guard tower. And so what we would do is try to rotate them, number one, to different positions to get different perspectives. But also to communicate the big picture in a way to help see – Because you don’t see daily progress. But if you step back and you look at what’s happened in the last month, or maybe the whole tour of a year, you can see meaningful change that’s occurred in many cases. And it’s the leader’s job to translate that.


[00:26:52] DR: Absolutely. Yeah. And to keep people motivated and keep those goals being more concrete so they can self-motivate, and all that as well.




[00:27:05] SW: If you enjoy this podcast, you’re going to love our annual conference, the NeuroLeadership Summit. Coming to you virtually on February 15th through 16th, 2022. We’ll bring business leaders, academics and visionaries from around the globe to an incredible virtual gathering where we’ll zero-in on powerful insights, trends and breakthroughs, as well as the principles of NeuroLeadership. All to help leaders and teams adapt faster in a transforming world. 


Join us online, February 15th through 16th, 2022 and attend sessions available across the globe. You can watch session live, participate in breakout rooms, interact with other members of the NLI community, or access content on demand. No matter how you prefer to engage, we promise you won’t want to miss it. To learn more and to save the date, visit summit.neuroleadership.com.




[00:28:02] DR: Can too much empathy or compassion compromised decision making in ambiguous situations? And the flip side of that, sort of how do goal-focused leaders more likely to – Overly goal-focused leaders more likely to treat people like commodities in a way? And what’s your perspective on those two?


[00:28:17] SM: I’ve seen it. And we’ve all seen it probably with the listeners. You’ve got a leader who comes in and they’re very focused on metrics. They’re very focused on performance results at the expense of their people, in many cases, and the climate just shows it. You can see how people respond in those types of climates. And that’s why I tend to veer to the people-centric approach. Because I really believe, whatever the metrics end up being, if you’ve really invested in your people, if your energy is focused within your organization and your people, and then you’re doing a sort of the broader stakeholder engagement outside of that purview. And I really think you’re getting the balance better.


[00:29:01] DR: Right. No. That’s great. You talked about going into the real battlefield. The toughest one of all, Washington, for a few years. What did you learn from that battleground? What were some of the tough lessons you learned for survival in that domain?


[00:29:13] SM: What was interesting was I was nervous going in because I was still on– 


[00:29:18] DR: As the guy who survived three or four tours in Iraq.


[00:29:21] SM: Yeah. But nervous because the military is pretty strictly nonpartisan a lot of ways, right? It does not matter what party is in charge. It doesn’t matter who’s president. At the end of the day, we still got a mission to do. When the directives come from Washington, we’re getting out there. And so I was nervous about getting brought into political intrigue, number one. And then you just go into a new environment thinking they’re going to be a lot of sharp elbows and we’re going to try to figure it out. And what was really refreshing was the people that I work alongside of I would want to go drink a beer with after work. I mean, they were just genuine, good public servants. And they respected the Hatch Act, which is the law that was passed to preclude those of us coming from not just the military, but the intelligence community, State Department, elsewhere, from getting roped into politics. And that was super refreshing. A lot of other stuff that I learned too about myself that was interesting is I’m just not a good staff officer. I’m not good at setting up meetings. And I need to be out in the field as a practitioner and trying to solve problems.


[00:30:33] DR: Yeah. No. I hear that you want to be out there. I think it’s so ironic that surviving three or four tours in Iraq and you’re nervous about going to Washington. We may have to do a headline on that, or something at some point. 


It is really interesting. I’ve written a lot about the situation there. And I don’t like focus on politics, but there’s a sort of helpful frame to understand what’s going on there. And I wrote about this when the first Trump election happened, and a couple of other times. But, basically, as humans we categorize everyone immediately automatically as friend or foe. And it’s mostly foe, unless we’re really sure otherwise. It’s just safer that way. In the brain, technical classification is in-group or out-group, right? And it’s an instant decision, and it’s made with everyone. And it’s usually made based on surface appearance. Unless you sort of know someone really well, or they’re exceptionally attractive, or you’ve had too much to drink, generally, strangers or out-group. So in most situations, anyone you don’t know well is an out-group. We’re sort of attuned to that. And there’s levels of out-group. 


What’s interesting, actually, I’ve been teaching intelligence forces and generals in various aspects. But I’ve been teaching this for a few years. What’s interesting is the variable that creates in-group, no matter what’s going on, is the creation of shared goals. And you can have three people who have different ages, different politics, different backgrounds, different socioeconomic levels, different gender, different education, everything. And they can completely feel like a team and get things done. And what it takes is something that they’ve got to do together. That’s a fairly short-term task. So not like we want all to have world peace. It’s something that we all need to achieve. And when we notice that something that we need to achieve, we create the sense of in-group.


What happens though is, and it’s interesting, and sort of politicians have used this for their own advancement, is that sometimes the way to create an in-group is to create an output. There’s a fantastic movie that sort of spoofs on this, which is Independence Day II. The first one, not that great a movie. The second one, maybe even worse. But the opening little salvo of the movie is how, because we all discovered threatening aliens outside, that we had a period of decades of peace on earth, because we all discovered an out-group, and we created in-group. 


And so I think as I’m thinking about sort of the work that you all have to do, for me, that’s the first step, is that you’ve got to find these shared goals with people in order to kind of kick off the – I mean, you need to do that just to kick off people even listening to each other at all.


[00:33:04] SM: That’s really interesting. And I’d be interested in your thoughts on whether it’s possible to hack the heuristics. Gets us automatically there, right? Because I would talk a lot in a counterinsurgency environment that I don’t want to hear a terminology like good and evil, good guys, and bad guys. That’s not helpful. There’s just a lot of gray space. 


And so part of what we’re doing is we’re trying to determine who the actors are, the influential actors that we can find a shared common ground with, at least partly, but we’re never going to fully agree. But there might be common goals we can get to. The insurgents were a very small proportion of the population. And we were a very small counter insurgent force. And we were vying for what we call the fence sitters, the people in the middle who just wanted that go about their normal daily lives. And the insurgents wanted them to get angry with us and join their team. And we would have been happy if they just stayed on a fence. But we really get behind the Iraqi government. In this case, get behind the legitimacy of your institutions. That was how I tried to, you know, maybe add a third category in there to keep it from being so unambiguous, because I think we’re complex human beings. 


[00:34:27] DR: That’s really interesting. Yeah, we are. And unfortunately, a lot of the problems with humanity come from what we call capacity issues. So capacity, in particular capacity, to just hold things in mind. Capacity to deal with complexity. The human brain has really surprisingly big limitations when it comes to just kind of thinking about even simple things. Like four or five variables in a problem we’re out. We just can’t process. So trying to remember six things in a set. Forget about it. 


The way the brain is structured is kind of were rewarded when we don’t have to think. Probably a product of our evolutionary history when metabolic resources were limited. And so anytime we can kind of simplify and part things, we get a little reward response. So we do that too much. That’s generalizing, approximating. It is bias. It’s a number of things. But it’s a really interesting challenge. And it’s just much easier to say, “Okay, you’re my in-group, you’re my out-group, you’re the enemy.” In a political situation, creating like a really clear divide is relatively easy to do as we saw and actually not healthy in many, many ways. 


But I think the way you’re approaching this is really interesting. It’s looking at it from a systems perspective. You’re looking at the whole system and you’re saying, “Where are the nodes that we can influence that can kind of then spread that influence, versus we’re going to try and change the whole system? So a little bit like organizational network analysis, where you study who the people of influence are based on actual connectivity and volume of communication. And then you go after those people, and you bring them along. And it’s a much smarter way to drive change than sort of top-down trying to enforce it. 


Let’s change gears a little bit. I was curious about this. I mean, you’re an incredibly compassionate individual. You’ve obviously survived some incredible experiences. You’ve kept your humanity. You seem like a really sensible, sane, functional human, with a very high amount of compassion. I mean, do you think compassion is teachable? And if so, what’s your hypothesis on how to do that?


[00:36:17] SM: I believe it is, but from another perspective of practice, right? I think it’s good to have a conceptual framework going in. But it’s something that we should model and practice. And so that’s where I think the gist of it is. I mean, education is super important, and I love it. But I really think what sticks with us are the habits that we develop, right?


[00:36:46] DR: Right. So we need to habituate things. Give us some examples of a couple of habits that you think if you could wave a magic wand and your entire platoon have this habit around compassion, what would you break it down to? Maybe it’s an if-then plan.


[00:36:58] SM: So, expressing gratitude is one that helps reinforce that habit. And I would get calls a lot from parents or spouses back home basically saying, “I haven’t heard from my son.” “I haven’t heard from my husband.” And so what we would end up doing was highly encouraged, which in the military is called voluntold, “Okay, guys, I want everybody to send a Valentine’s note home to mom by such and such a day,” and just stick it in the mail. We’ll even give you the materials if you’ve never done snail mail before. And it might not seem like a big deal to you. But when mom gets it and opens that up, it’s going to be really meaningful. And so stuff like that. I think helping people learn to practice gratitude is one way to get the compassion.


[00:37:46] DR: Right, right. No. It’s interesting. There’s a lot of research on that as well. What else? What are the sort of cognitive muscles or habits in a difficult situation? Practice gratitude? What else? What are some of the sort of particular habits you think are at the heart of compassion? And if you haven’t thought about this yet, let’s brainstorm. 


[00:38:04] SM: In our difficult conversations workshops, it’s fascinating to see thinking through what are your own personal triggers, right? And trying to understand what is the history that got me to that? Whether it’s road rage, or if somebody is rude in a meeting, or whatever it is, and trying to objectively remove yourself from the situation in a way where you can empathize with why is that? Maybe they’ve got a legitimate reason for whatever you consider rude behavior right now in the meeting? And how do we try to peel the layers back to make sense of it? And maybe they’re just being rude. That’s just the way they are too. And there are ways to handle that. But a leader that knows their people and knows their organization, they become more of an artist, right? They understand the science. But the art is how do I apply the science in the context of the situation, right? And that’s the blend of leadership we try to teach in the military.


[00:39:07] DR: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s really practicing these difficult social situations. And in a way, we’re back to difficult conversations. The framework we have for that, the kind of layers on top of three levels of threat is the five things that create strong threats. These are outside of physical dangers, which obviously creates real strong threat. But there are social issues. Some of them have a physical component, they’re really social issues. And it’s a sense of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. And these five things are playing out in the brain all the time. You think of it as a seesaw or any one of these can be on the negative side or the positive side, right? The worst thing is having all five on the negative. 


In a business context, if you fire someone unfairly, give them no recourse, don’t explain it and send them out the door right now, you’ve just hit all five negatives, right? You’ve attacked their status in a way they don’t understand. They have no autonomy. They thought you’re on their side. And you’re treating them unfairly. So people will be unbelievably upset by that, maybe forever. Whereas if you need to fire someone, maybe you’re going to do it, give them a lot of information and an ability to understand it and do it super fairly. You’re going to reduce that threat even more. And I think that’s the SCARF model that we’ve been working with since 2008. 


And you’re right, it’s a framework, and then you need to layer on top of that practice. And that’s what we try to do in different learning modules. So start with the framework so that you can see in real time what’s going on. I think what’s interesting about SCARF is you can actually see a status threat happening in real time in your brain or someone else. You can really see it. You can see like the person rising up and kind of trying to fight back and protect their status, right?


You can see someone feeling like control was taken away. You can kind of sense it. I mean, we can teach AI this stuff. And frighteningly, we might at some point. But you can really hear in someone’s words someone who feels treated unfairly. So as you sort of trained for this, you can actually in real time see these things happening, which means ahead of time you can imagine the way your meeting is going to go, and go, “Oh, that’s not good. I’m going to threaten certainty you hugely.” Let’s maybe give people choices, raise their sense of autonomy. 


So it becomes this kind of scaffolding to be able to see in real time what’s going on. And we sort of started using this language a few years ago, we call it disruptive language. Disruptive language is not a model that you have to sort of try and remember. It’s a model that just comes into your mind effortlessly without really in any work. SCARF is one of those, because you see it everywhere once you learn it. When I teach the military, and it’s at George Washington University, we’ve spent a lot of time on that model talking to people about kind of creating coalitions and really creating positive SCARF intentionally in those spaces. Does that make sense to you? Do you connect to that?


[00:41:46] SM: Yeah.  Yeah. I haven’t seen your model. So I would love to learn more about it. But yeah, I absolutely agree with the philosophy that you’re describing.


[00:41:55] DR: Yeah. No. It’s interesting. Steve, incredible conversation. I’ve got so many kinds of ideas buzzing around in my head. I guess the one thing I’m sort of want to hear your perspective on before we close in a few minutes, why do leaders shy away from compassion do you think? What’s your perspective? Why are some leaders just kind of absolute no nose on that, or it’s so hard to build that? What’s your perspective?


[00:42:18] SM: I think a lot of it stems from insecurity, right? They are feeling insecure in some way, and they don’t want appear to be weak. And so they need to go in and establish some sort of hard line to make sure everybody understands that they’re in charge. And really, at the end of the day, I always approach my relationships especially with people who are senior to me as we’re working with each other. I’m not working for you. As a matter of fact, I am working for all the people in my organization. That’s who I work for. And that helps me keep things in context and not worry so much. That really helps keep you grounded with a level of humility, too, that keeps you in a compassion space, right? Keeps you with understanding and seeking empathy to really hear people out and give them the voice that will allow them to be part of the team.


[00:43:25] DR: Yeah. Yeah, I know that’s really interesting. I mean, what you’re doing is trying to reduce your own status a little bit, and increase the relatedness more, which is the in-group, out-group. That’s the relatedness, to drop yours and raise theirs. And that’s the right way to do it. But people who’ve made me feel insecure about their status try to raise their own status a lot and try to drop other people’s status. That doesn’t tend to end well, because then you don’t have relatedness. Status and relatedness are kind of opposing in some ways.


[00:43:50] SM: Yeah. And I know it’s true in a civilian sector, but in the military, some people really gravitate to the idea of rank, right? And I would always say, rank was mildly interesting when I was in the service. Like right now, I don’t care at all about it. But I know it’s important for promotion and stuff like that, with respect to getting an audience, or whatever it happens to be. And so I understand when people use it. But really, at the end of the day, I think we’re all human beings and we should be able to relate to each other on some level. And that’s the framework I try to approach things from.


[00:44:26] DR: Yeah. Fantastic. Steve, I really appreciate the conversation. I think I speak for everyone in just say saying a big thank you for your service, in both the work you’ve done in the leaders that you’ve created, in the work that you’ve done, academically as well. And I think we all kind of breathe a slight sigh of relief that people like you were out there putting this this kind of good thinking into the service as well. So thank you for your service. Really appreciate it. And look forward to connecting again.


[00:44:51] SW: Great. Thanks, David. Thank you again, Steve. Your stories were so inspiring. For announcements, we are really excited. We’ve been working very hard for summit for 2022. That’ll be happening February 15th and 16th. We’ll be opening registration in a few weeks. But until then, make sure that you save the date. And if you want more information, visit summit.neuroleadership.com to stay in the know on all the news that’s coming up. 


We’re also hiring. So if you want to come on our side and join us and you’re interested in opportunities, let us know. Visit neuroleadership.com/careers to learn more about the open positions – Enjoyed this conversation, you can hear it again, because it will be on our podcast. And if you haven’t already subscribed, please make sure that you do. Look for Your Brain at Work on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to your podcast. And this is where we say farewell. So thank you all for joining us today. On behalf of our team and our guest, thank you for joining us. Also, a special thank you to all the veterans out there for your past and continued service in our communities. We hope to see you here next week when we return to talk about what we get wrong about inclusion, with our guests, Linda Lynard. So have a great rest of your day, and happy Friday. 




[00:46:07] SW: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us make organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you listen to your podcast. Our producers are Matt Holidack, Daniel Kirschenblatt, Shadé Olasimbo, and me, Shelby Wilburn. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Catch Wear. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you here next week. 





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