A shot of serotonin

It’s the middle of summer and (hopefully) the middle/end of the pandemic. This is the time of the year where I’d usually be vacationing in some far-off location with my wife and children. Instead, like many of you, I’m socially distancing myself from a lot of my friends, family and colleagues. It’s been challenging, and isolating, times.

To fill some of the gaps, I’ve been planning my fall classes, working with some graduate students, and reading a lot. To build some social engagement around my reading, a colleague and I decided to read Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek (2017) together. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, check out his TED Talk titled Why good leaders make you feel safe. It’s a good starting point on his perspectives on leadership and how leaders build a “Circle of Safety” for their co-workers and employees. In the book, Sinek writes,

“By creating a Circle of Safety around the people in the organization, leadership reduces the threats people feel inside the group, which frees them up to focus more time and energy to protect the organization from the constant dangers outside and seize the big opportunities. Without a Circle of Safety, people are force to spend too much time and energy protecting themselves from each other” (p. 27).

With the number of outside dangers facing education right now, I find comfort in the concept of the Circle of Safety. I worry, however, that in our isolated states we’re not sensing any real community with our colleagues. And we’re spending a lot of time and energy protecting ourselves from some very real threats (job security, health and safety concerns, economics, etc.) on our own. In times like this, leadership that fosters a “Circle of Safety” and instills organizational empathy is critically important. The book provides a great road map for promoting this perspective.

To build a foundation for his brand of leadership, Sinek focuses on how individuals emotionally react to different leadership styles. He spends a lot of time discussing the chemicals in our body and how they impact our emotions. He labels endorphins and dopamine as “selfish chemicals” because they drive us “to hunt, to gather and to achieve.” These emotions are primarily dedicated to those activities we achieve individually, though. We don’t feel endorphins from someone else running a marathon or dopamine from someone else being promoted. To feel a rush of endorphins or dopamine, we have to accomplish a goal or complete a task on our own. In Sinek’s view, these chemicals act in opposition to the fostering of any collaborative “Circle of Safety.”

In contrast, Sinek labels serotonin and oxytocin as “the selfless chemicals” and deems them as being critical for the keeping the Circle of Safety strong. He writes:

“It is the selfless chemicals that make us feel valued when we are in the company of those we trust, give us the feeling of belonging and inspire us to want to work for the good of the group” (p. 55).

Although serotonin and oxytocin are both important for fostering the Circle of Safety, in Sinek’s mind, serotonin is the most critical of the emotion-inducing chemicals from a leadership perspective. He even calls it “the leadership chemical” because it instills a feeling of respect and pride in the work we do. Because it’s a “selfless chemical,” we can get that rush of emotions from the success of our colleagues, our employees, our students or our friends. And that’s what makes it so critical to good leadership. Sinek writes:

“Whether we are a boss, coach or parent, serotonin is working to encourage us to serve those for whom we are directly responsible. And if we are the employee, player or the one being looked after, the serotonin encourages us to work hard to make them proud” (p. 59).

As we work through the chaos of summer and this pandemic, let’s seek out those shots of serotonins. Let’s take pride in the accomplishments of our colleagues and rejoice in the work of our students. In our isolated states, let’s uncover those opportunities to validate the work of our peers and celebrate the accomplishments of those we value. It will feel good for them. And probably feel good for us as well.

And we could all use a little of that right now.

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