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  • Writer's pictureBrent Stromwall

RARE Leadership, part 3 - Relational Circuits

“Emotionally immature leaders have almost no capacity to remain relational in the face of big problems.”[1] Nearly every leader is operating at capacity – even beyond capacity – and has little to no margin to remain relational. In fact, many of the issues and activities that leaders are involved in are already emotionally taxing. So, when it “hits the fan” a typical (and immature) response is to focus on solving the problem. This oftentimes results in approaching others aggressively to get them to do their part to make the problem go away. Leaders undermine their own success by allowing the problem to become bigger than the relationship.

Fear motivated Jason to lash out, yell “Stop!” and walk out the door (virtually – we were on a video conference). (See Part 2 - Becoming Overwhelmed) His fear was that his team would lose focus on serving their all-important clients. What happened in him? He lost his ability to remain relational. He didn't choose this. It just happened. This problem became bigger than the relationships with his team members. More specifically, the part of his brain (the right side) that operates in relationships shut down. His brain was now operating solely in “logic-mode” (the left side). Drs. Marcus Warner and James Wilder would say his Relational Circuits (RCs) in his brain went off. Consider this: Modern brain science shows that we actually have neural circuits in our brains that we use to nurture and grow our relationships. All these circuits exist in the right side of the brain. When the brain switches out of using these circuits it reverts to the left side (logic) of the brain. We call this lack of relational processing going into “enemy mode.” (More on brain circuits here: Logical or Relational)

Here are some of the ways you can notice when you are in enemy mode, or your RCs are off: 1) you feel annoyed or irritated, 2) you view someone that you usually feel close to as an adversary, 3) you want to isolate, 4) your mind becomes hyper-focused on an issue, 5) you want the problem to just go away, 6) anger, fear, guilt or shame become your motivators, or 7) you become defensive. Although not a comprehensive list, suffice it to say, when your RCs are off you have no capacity to interact relationally with another person – any other person. Your brain simply has shifted its operating mode from relational to logic.

The RARE Leader is one that stays in relational mode in the midst of problems and hardships (see: Leadership vs Management). To remain relational and keep your RCs on – or turn them back on – Warner and Wilder give us four strategies in an acronym, CAKE.

Curiosity: Begin your sentences with “I’m curious, …” Curiosity is a non-logic function in the brain. And it must be genuine – not sarcastic curiosity. Instead of blurting out potential solutions, defending your position, or challenging someone when they state a problem, responding with genuine curiosity (e.g. “I’m curious if you’ve considered…”) can help keep or turn on your RCs.

After the meeting with Jason’s team he and I spent some time debriefing what happened. I asked, “I’m curious, how did you feel when you told everyone that they needed to ‘Stop,’ and then exited the meeting?” He thoughtfully responded, giving his reasons. I then asked, "Why do you think you felt that way?" Eventually I helped him recognize the fear behind those concerns and asked, “How do you think the other leaders on the team felt after you left the meeting?”

What I didn’t say was, “Jason, you acted like a complete idiot. That kind of behavior is well below a leader in your position. Don’t you know that you shut down your team and killed productivity?” My genuine interest helped him become curious about his own people. It also helped me understand how I could truly help him and his relationships. For Jason to consider the others and their feelings, he had to “switch” into using his relational circuits. As he reflected on how he felt and his impact on others we both began to understand the outburst. Only then could we start discussing how the relationships could be improved.

Appreciation: Appreciation has a two-for-one effect on relating. Sincere appreciation helps wake up the RCs in both the giver and the receiver of the appreciation. Drs. Gary Chapman and Paul White conducted research over a five-year period which led to their book, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. Their conclusion from this research: “We believe that people in the workplace need to feel appreciated in order for them to enjoy their job, do their best work, and continue working over the long haul.”[2] In addition, Paul McCabe writes in Feed the Good Dog, “No one gets any pleasure from giving to an ungrateful person.”[3] Are you genuinely grateful and demonstrate appreciation toward others on the team?

Kindness: Warner and Wilder define kindness as shared joy. “It is doing things that create joy for someone else. In the process your own joy grows as well.”[4] In other words, when taking the initiative to instill joy in someone else, you also become more joyful. Another two-for. Kayla Heisler offers: “When employees see leaders putting others before themselves, they are more likely to commit to team goals and help other employees. These facets make for a stronger team overall, which leads to more positive results for the organization.”[5] Brain science shows that “joy capacity can be built throughout the lifetime.”[6] You become a more joyful person as you give and experience joy. This, in turn, enhances your ability and capacity to endure overwhelming experiences – like a confrontational colleague lashing out during a meeting.

Envelope Conversations: You’ve probably heard the axiom: Say six positive things for every one negative. Forget that. This is different. This is about how you approach a problem. Do you ask yourself, “How can this relationship (person) help me solve this problem?” Or do you ask, “How can the relationship benefit once this problem is solved?” When we are relational, we tend to think about what is best for everyone and we solve problems in the most productive and least harmful way.

Starting out with the history of the relationship and then ending with a vision of what the relationship could be once the problem is solved is enveloping the conversation. When I mentioned to Jason that I’ve recognized his compassion and appreciation for each of the members of his team (history), and later discussed his vision of how he wants them to relate and work together, he realized how important it is to keep that in mind and more important than merely solving the problem.

As you grow your ability to remain relational with those around you during problems and hard times, you will also develop your ability to consistently behave at your best. We call this “Act Like Yourself.” (Read more: Part 4 – Act Like Yourself)


I have to give credit for most of my insight to my friend and mentor Barbara Moon, who patiently invests in me weekly (using her book, Joy-filled Relationships) and ad-hoc Q&A with me via text messages, and from the book, Rare Leadership, by Drs. Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder.

[1] Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder, Rare Leadership – 4 Uncommon Habits for increasing Trust, Joy, and Engagement in the People You Lead (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016) 123 [2] Gary Chapman and Paul White, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2011), 27 [3] Paul McCabe, Feed the Good Dog (Ontario: Rose Line Publishing, 2004), 167 [4] Warner and Wilder, Rare Leadership, 132 [5] Kayla Heisler, “7 Reasons Kindness Is the Most Important Leadership Trait, According to Science,” Ivy Exec,

[6] Barbara Moon, Joy-Filled Relationships (Atlanta: Barbara Moon, 2012), 78

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