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Powerful Leadership in Painful Times with Dr. Julia DiGangi

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Janine Bacani

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We have Dr. Julia DiGangi with us today with NeuroHealthPartners.com and what we are going to be talking about is powerful leadership in painful times. So Dr. Julia, she is actually an extremely well renowned and widely published neural health expert. She’s had experiences ranging from the White House to many extremely well known companies in really helping people to accelerate their leadership and ascend their leadership through neuroscience. And that’s actually what we’re going to be talking about today. So, Dr. Julia, please introduce yourself. 

Well, thank you so much for having me, Doug. I’m super excited to be here with you. 


So, yeah, you kind of hit the nail. And I have a neuropsychologist, which means I’m a clinical psychologist with specialized expertise in the brain. And my work really focuses in three categories your brain, your leadership, and your emotional power. So sort of view,  I love working with people, and I work with people in almost every capacity you can imagine. So I do a lot of work in corporate settings, so with teams, with managers. I do a lot of work with entrepreneurs because, oh, my goodness, is an emotional power so important in order to stay resilient as an entrepreneur and then I do work with parents, with couples, with individuals. So it’s been so powerful to be able to have this really this work. I feel like my work is so sacred and so powerful to be able to see the human experience in all these different domains. 

Yeah, well, I guess I would say I have observed that it feels to me like there’s been a lot of progress in the understanding of neuropsychology, and I guess it was what I would call emotional awareness or emotional intelligence over about the last 10-15 years. 

Oh, my God. Yes. So I’ve worked in this field for really been thinking about mental health, empowerment, and emotional intelligence. So I’ll tell you just a little bit about my history. I come from psychologists in my blood, so my father is a psychologist. When I was a little girl, I used to read his textbooks and bedtime stories. You know, they had those, like, little vignettes, like Dad went to the supermarket. So I really grew up on this stuff. And so I’ve paid close attention to how other people talk about emotional intelligence, mental health, advocacy, relationships. And you’re exactly right. It’s just wildly different than even it was like five years ago. I think obviously the pandemic brought so much of this into light in a way that we had not historically thought about. 

Yeah, well, precisely. And just my observation from my own upbringing is that I think a lot of us, myself included, were kind of culturally conditioned to compartmentalize. And especially myself being male, we’re culturally conditioned to just sort of like, okay, if there’s something you’re having anxiety about, don’t say anything about it. Don’t talk about it. Just sort of of kind push it off to the side until it inevitably explodes in some highly unproductive manner. And I’m being a little bit tongue in cheek here, but that’s sort of how it ends up happening. And that’s really not the best way to go through your life. 

Well, not only is it not the best way, you’re hitting the nail on the head, but I think the number one thing is going to be a pretty bold statement. But I think the number one.

I love bold statements.

Well, you can tell me if you agree or if you have questions, but

I think the singular thing that human beings want is access to their own power. We want to be able to have an effect on our own lives. We want to live the life we want to live. We want to do the jobs we want to do. We want our relationships to feel good for us. We want to be able to be expressed. And if you look at all these conversations that are happening in our traditional corporate context or even entrepreneur context, people are talking about transparency, authenticity, inclusion, connection, empathy.

Can I go on and on. So the frontier this is another bold statement, the great frontier of business evolution is absolutely about emotional intelligence. And so I think when leaders understand what it really means to be emotionally intelligent, they’re power skyrockets. And when I use this term power because I’m going to use it a lot in our conversation.

I’m certain it is the subject of our conversation. So that’s okay.

I’m certainly not talking about like, command and control. I’m going to squish you. I don’t actually consider that power command and control, I think, is actually a form of emotional weakness. In other words, I can’t control myself, so I have to try to control you. So when we show up very powerfully in our leadership, it empowers us and it empowers the people that work with and for us. And then the relationship wins. So it pays dividends across every aspect of our leadership. 

Yes, I completely and fully agree. I’m going to get a little bit of a nerdy old school economist on you. But like, for example, one of the things that I’m really fond of saying because of course, because of all the nonsense that’s been happening in the last few years, the idea of capitalism has kind of come under attack. But the thing that I keep thinking of is what capitalism is supposed to be is a set of mutually beneficial voluntary transactions. In other words, if I do business with you, there has to be a benefit to me in excess of what I’m paying, and there has to be a benefit to you in excess of what it costs for you to fulfill. Otherwise, we should not be doing business. Now what ends up happening is of course things get really complicated and sometimes that gets obscure. A small side note. So when Adam Smith, who wrote The Wealth of nations, which is kind of commonly considered to be the foundational document for capitalism, he actually wrote a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments before The Wealth of nations, which he had assumed everybody who read The Wealth of nations would have also read. And so the whole idea of capitalism is not intended to take place within kind of an amoral, winner take all, win lose type of environment. It’s actually meant to, I think to take place within, I guess I would say, I would say a moral, emotionally aware context. I think that over the past hundred and something years that’s sort of been lost. And I think now we’re going through a process of saying, no, that needs to come back. 

Which part needs to come back? 

The moral and emotionally aware context. Because I would say that specifically in like the 80s 90s eary 2000  there was a go get it, winner take all, I don’t care what it, I don’t care what the consequences are type of mentality, or at least that’s just what I perceive. And I think that has kind of set the stage for kind of the psychological crisis that we’re going through right now. Tell me if you disagree. 

I mean, I think, I’ll say this everything that we think we want, anything that you think has meaning. Okay? So whether you think you want to accumulate a lot of wealth, whether you think that you want a big house, whether you think you want a small house, whether you think you want a big team, a small team, five children, one children, the way the brain works is the only things that have meaning entirely depend on the emotional systems in your brain. In other words,

The very meaning of your life is only determined by emotional systems in the brain.

So when people tell me they want to have a lot of money, they want to have this type of career, they want to have that type whatever they want, I’m always like, what is the emotional frequency underneath that? Because if you had money but you didn’t feel safe, that wouldn’t really solve your problem, would it?

No it wouldn’t.

Yes, if you had a ton of people report to you but you felt out of control all the time, you felt overwhelmed all the time, that certainly wouldn’t be the fantasy. So in other words, I think everyone’s going to resonate with this. How often do we swear as soon as fill in the blank, we get the promotion, we make the sale, we sell the business, we acquire the business, that we’re going to be fill in the blank, happy, fulfilled, not stressed, relaxed. Yeah. Well it’s so much more powerful to start at the level of the thing itself. In other words, it’s so much more powerful to start at the level of emotional energy, and people get it so tangled. So I said the bold statement on sort of making is that more than anything else, people want access to their own power. This is true of us as leaders, and it’s true of the people who work with and for us. Okay, yeah. Well, look what typically happens in sort of traditional workplace environments. It’s like, I’m going to figure out how to engage my employees. I’m going to figure out how to inspire my employees. So when leaders come to work with me, when I work with managerial teams, they’re usually saying something like, the people on my team aren’t engaged enough. They’re not inspired enough. They’re not motivated enough. Like, what do we do? Do we give them social recognition? Do we give them gift cards? Do we give them bonuses? And a lot of these leaders genuinely care about the people that work for them or the customers that they serve. But it’s the wrong it’s the wrong question. The more powerful question is how engaged are you? How inspired by your own work are you? How turned on by your own work are you? I can’t create another sensation in somebody else’s nervous system. So the way, way, way more powerful leadership question is how do I turn myself on? How do I engage myself? How do I motivate myself and then trust that the people who follow me will feel the energy of my inspiration, motivation, and engagement. You see how much cleaner that is? It’s an entirely different occasion. 

Well because the thing I’m thinking, based on what you’re saying, is that so a very famous Zig Ziglar quote is that sales or persuasion is a transference of enthusiasm. And so what you’re saying is that

if you are not genuinely bought in, enthusiastic about real legitimate value and everything about what you’re doing, then you can’t expect that to transfer to the people on your team. And there’s no technique that can fake that.

There’s no exactly that. You said it exactly right. That was a fantastic quote you gave. And do you see how what that really is about is this idea of command and control? I’m going to make you feel something that I don’t even feel. And as soon as you’re engaged, teammate, spouse, child, the whole reason I really need you to do that for me is so that ultimately I can feel the thing that I don’t currently feel in my body. In other words, as soon as you’re excited, I’ll feel safe. As soon as you’re excited, I’ll feel in control. As soon as you’re excited, I’ll feel fill in the blank. The math on that I talk a lot about emotional physics and emotional math. Like, we make our emotional lives way more complicated than they need to be. Turn yourself on, and then other people will be turned on, and this is not a statement of philosophy. We neuroscientifically know that emotion is a thing of contagion. You build it because you walk into a room and you’re in a great mood. You walk into a room where everybody’s like, down in the dumps, and suddenly you’re like your mood sinks. The alternative is true. You’ve been feeling kind of mad, and you walk into a conversation where two people are cracking up. You don’t even know what they’re laughing about. You’re just like when you see other people laugh, you start to laugh. So humans is when we talk about mirror neurons, and so emotion is a thing of contagion. 

Yeah. Okay. So I think the number one, I absolutely love that philosophy and completely agree with it. Number two, let’s kind of pivot to the, okay, how do you get yourself to that state? Because I’d say this is probably one of the more difficult things that any of us will do in our life, because the overwhelming majority of us, myself included, have a natural tendency to basically have how we feel, be dictated by our circumstances. And it takes a high amount of intellectual effort to go contrary. In other words, to be in a positive emotional state when you have negative circumstances going on. And I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts and insights here, because the thing that I’ve really taken out of the conversation thus far is that that is really the master key to that happy, fulfilled, successful. All the adjectives you’re looking for out of your life. 

So in order super powerful question Doug. So how do we become more inspired, motivated to not engage in our own life? You do this by the second you stop dividing yourself from yourself. I’m going to explain what this means. 

Thank you.

Yup. It’s going to be so clear and so powerful. I always get so excited because I like watching people’s, like, the light bulbs go off. I currently am writing a book for Harvard Business Review. And the book is The Neuroscience of Helping Leaders Lead Powerfully in Painful Times. So the book is really okay, well, it’s painful times. The scientist in me is like, well, what does pain mean? Right? Well, pain is always an emotional experience, right? If I had no feeling about the pain, it couldn’t be pain. So I first had to describe to you what pain is. So your brain, I always say it’s the most precious real estate in the world. It’s less than £3. So any bad feeling you have, I don’t care. The words you use, you could call it stressed, down, mad, afraid, irritated, anxious, rageful. I mean, we could go on and on. There’s hundreds of synonyms. But the parts of your brain that give rise to those sensations are always the same parts of your brain. Does that make sense? Yeah. Right. Okay, so the words don’t matter. It’s really we’re talking about the neurologic sensation. So there are instances when people do things to us. So my fundamental area of expertise is trauma. This is exactly what trauma is. I think my neighborhood is safe. I get assaulted, I get attacked, we go to war. So horrible things absolutely happen to us that causes tremendous pain, full stop. Also, we create an enormous amount of pain in our own life when we divide ourselves from ourselves. What do I mean by this? It means I really want to speak up, but I keep my mouth shut. I really want to say no, but I say yes. I really want to rest, but I overwork. I really don’t want to appease you, but I kiss your ass. I really want to go right, but I go left. In all of those moments, I have abandoned the truth of my own energy. And the reason this is so powerful is because in those moments, what my brain, what my nervous system is really encoding is that the dangerous person in the room I spent my whole life ranting and raving about why these customers are like this and why these coworkers are like this, and why the people on social media and why my spouse and my kids okay, fine, whatever. Put that aside. I am now my greatest betrayer. How can I expect other people to accommodate me when I don’t listen to the truth of my own energy? When I work against my own power, I cancel myself out. Yes. So the reason I want you to think about this very mathematically, you’re trying to build it something expansive, powerful. It’s going to have a lot of, let’s say, weight. OK. Every time I shut down my own energy julia, keep your mouth shut. Julia, don’t do that. Julia, don’t say that. Julia, don’t be like that. Shove it, shove it. Cut it. Cut it, cut it, cut it. It’s the law of subtraction. I’m taking some of my energy, taking some of my energy, taking some of my energy, which then the sum of that, it’s a weaker sum. Instead of I want to be £100, now I’m £20. Well, what is the emotional equivalent of having less energy? The emotional equivalent of having less energy is I don’t feel inspired. I don’t feel engaged. I have low mood, I feel depressed, I feel exhausted, I feel depleted. And then we wonder why our leadership feels so bad to us because we turned on ourselves. You see that?

I do and the thing that I’m thinking is that I completely agree with absolutely everything you’re saying now. I think the place where many people, myself included, or at least what I’ve historically had difficulty with this is that doing what you’re saying, basically avoiding dividing yourself, really just following along with, I guess you could say your own wife, however you want to express the metaphor will create social tension and conflict, either with your friends, family, spouse, kids, etc. On and so I think that in a lot of cases, the tendency, or at least the tendency that I’ve expressed, has been to say, okay, you know what? I don’t want to deal with those conflicts. I’m just going to go along, and eventually that chips away until you have some kind of blow up crisis, whatever. So but I think the real piece or the thing that I’d love to unpack a little more is how to effectively deal with that tension and conflict that gets created by actually by really expressing yourself fully at 100%, as opposed to just emptying your bucket so that you can go along. 

So in other words, how do you deal if you start to become more aligned with your own energy, with your own authenticity, how do you deal with the invariable conflict that will come up? 


Okay, so great question. So I’m going to tell you here one of these things that I say all the time. One of them is the universe speaks to us in twos. What I mean by this is, just look at nature. There’s a light in the dark, a big and a small and up and down and yin and a Yang, right? So the most powerful person on the planet is the person who understands this duality, who understands that pain doesn’t happen when there’s basically pain and pleasure come together, that joy and sorrow come together, that easy and hard come together. So it’s a mistake. We actually weaken ourselves when we think, I need to get to the space and time in my life when everyone agrees and everything looks good and then I’m ready to act. No, I got to understand that what it means to be human means there will always be tension, and in fact, literally think about an analog to physical weight. If I’m someone who’s, like, really into physical fitness, I can lift 500 pounds. It’s not that I’m not lifting 100 pounds. It’s that as I increase my strength, 100 pounds doesn’t tax me the way it used to. Do you understand? I’m still passing through. Okay, so what do we do in these situations? So I got to take a little bit of the long way around here, but it’s going to be worth it. 

I completely agree with you. Let’s go. 

So the reason I accommodate other people, it has to come back to my own nervous system, right? Nothing. If a tree falls in the forest and my brain isn’t there to process it, there can be no sensation in my brain. So the whole reason I would want to go along with my spouse or the people on my team is because ultimately, I think it’s going to make me feel better. I think it’s going to make me feel less triggered, less on edge, less anxious. So I’m like, all right, fine, I’ll go along. But the problem with that is the truth of my own energy has not been evaporated, meaning I still know, well, shit, I didn’t really want to do that. I really wanted to speak up in that situation, but I wasn’t courageous enough. I really wanted to do this thing, but I didn’t really want to be seen. So I still have to carry this other pain. So this is such a this is such a big I call it a power rotation. This can be such a big power rotation for people is what is. If I understand that there’s no way the brain will ever not process pain. I’m going to tell you something here. It’s going to blow your mind. We can put people in an empty room in laboratory settings. It’s just a boring room. They will report being in pain. In other words, have you ever been bored? And it feels so uncomfortable. It’s like there’s absolutely nothing dangerous but it feels miserable. The brain is going to detect  pain.

I was in the military. I was in the Marine Corps Reserve. You spent a lot of time being bored. 

Yes. Okay. So the brain will detect pain the way your lungs will just breathe. Your brain’s just going to do this. So we’re always trying to outrun pain, outrun pain, outrun pain, outrun pain. It’s an illusion. So here’s the power question. The power question is which pain is the more powerful pain? Which is the pain that expands my leadership? Is it the pain where I keep my mouth shut or is it the pain where I speak up? So when I really start to understand what the brain is doing, it’s like I don’t get mad at gravity because gravity makes things fall down. I just go, OK, that’s the way it goes. So when I really start to think about my nervous system, do you see how much more powerfully I can lead? I can make more empowered choices. I can have a better conceptualization. Do you see this or am I explaining this clearly? 

I think so. At least the way that I’m thinking about it or what I’m hearing is that what a lot of us are, I guess I would say are evolutionary rewired. To do is to try to run away from pain. But pain is always there. And even in a situation that should not be painful, our brain will manufacture pain or manufacture the feelings of pain. So what we need to do is we really need to understand what is going to be legitimately most painful over that holistic longer term perspective and go and address that and ignore what feels like it’s going to be easiest in the right now. At least that’s what I’m taking away from it. Tell me if I miss the mark. 

I think that you do a great job. I would just say that a lot of time I would make one important tweak. A lot of times the things that we think are going to be painful. Like, oh, my God. Okay, so Doug, you’ve really done something to upset me. Yeah, I really want to talk to you about it, but I’m afraid I’m anxious, I’m stressed out. I don’t want to get I don’t want you to get mad at me. We can all imagine the talk of them. So there’s a lot of avoidance, but there’s avoidance of the thing that’s actually not even that painful. In other words, the second I actually start that conversation with you, what happens 99 times out of 100 is I’m like, it wasn’t so bad. But the cost of not approaching that pain is great. In other words, I know, like, well, I’m not someone who will advocate for myself. I’m not someone who will open my mouth. I’m not someone that I can really rely on. So the cost of avoidance, because we’re not talking about if you stub your toe or you burn your hand on a hot stove, that will be over in five minutes and I hope it never happens again. The type of pain you and I are talking about is the day in, day out. Like, I don’t like the way my life feels, I don’t like the way my job feels, I don’t like the way my relationships feel. Well, if we’re over and over having the same experience, you know, automatically you’re in a pattern. I’m in a pattern. And the pattern, I promise you, the pattern that’s putting you in pain, you’re actually there, paradoxically enough, because you keep avoiding a more powerful pain. In other words, not a pain that’s going to keep you in pain, a pain that’s going to set you free. So let me tell you something that’s called the emotional shape that’s really going to clarify this, okay? And I’m going to make a perfect what we’re really trying to do for your listeners is like, how do I become more emotionally powerful? Alright. Yes. Well, let’s talk physical health for a second. OK. If I go to the gym and I lift more weight than I’m accustomed to, my muscles quite literally start to shake. Now, when people go to the gym and their muscles shake, never in the history of going to the gym has someone gone, oh my God, this is a crisis, call 911, my muscles are shaking, and then fled the gym, never to ever step foot back in the gym again. And in fact, for those of us who kind of work out with some regularity when our muscles shakes, we don’t think it’s a massage, we’re not confused, but there’s something satisfying about it because we’re like, this is the evidence. The shaking is itself the evidence that I’m getting stronger. Yeah. Let’s now talk about the emotional shake. When I go to have a conversation with you, Doug, about something that I’m frankly a little bit nervous to talk to you about, I’m going to shake, quite literally. My hands might shake, my body might feel jittery, my voice might quiver. But unlike the gym, we do flee those situations. Oh, God, I’m not going to talk to him. I’m going to keep my mouth shut. And then in that, I get resentful at you and I get resentful at myself. And then the whole thing goes off the rails. I’m saying if we hold our emotional shake, if we’re willing to just sit in the sensation of it, being a little bit anxious, being a little bit nervous, you get so emotionally powerful, and this happens so quickly because the brain we call it habituation, the brain will change its set point in terms of the amount of emotional energy you can hold. It’s like math.

Yeah, I think that’s extremely powerful. What I’m really hearing is that instead of instead of creating anxiety to try to kind of conform with whatever social norm you feel is pressuring you, you really just have to lean into the idea that you’re going to be living in a realm of social discomfort. And over a surprisingly short period of time, a lot of that discomfort you imagine will ultimately dissipate,


That’s what I’m hearing, and I think that is 100% right. Advice. Much harder to do than it is to say, but that’s where real personal growth and power comes from. 

But also, too, the more you do it. The first time I went to the gym, my muscles were really sore. I didn’t like it. Now when I go, it’s almost I don’t love it. It doesn’t feel great. But there’s something satisfying about it. There’s something like exhilarating about it. There’s something so I have seen in my own life and I have seen in other people’s life. The more you start to understand the sensations your brain is creating, the more empowered you become. You’re like, oh, there’s no monster in the closet. It’s just what my body does. No big deal. 

Got it. That’s awesome. Well, Dr. Julia, this has been an amazing conversation and we have been a little bit over time, but I think it’s completely worth it. Give us your one or two last thoughts and then let us know your website again and tell us which social networks are most active on and where do we find you? 

Yeah, so I am talking about emotional intelligence and emotional power and leadership all the time. I’m on Facebook@drjuliadiganji.com. Instagram drjuliadiganji.com. not.com. Dr. Julia DiGangi is my handle and then LinkedIn and YouTube at Dr. Julia DiGangi. So I’m certainly happy to answer any questions and keep this conversation going. My book, which is The Neuroscience of Powerful Leadership and Painful Times, it’s going to be published by Harvard Business Review and it’s coming out in early 2023. 

Outstanding. Outstanding. Well, Dr. Julia, I really, really appreciate your time. It’s been an amazing conversation. 

Thank you so much for having me. You’re a great interviewer. You made me. Feel very comfortable. 

Well, thank you.

Apple Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/266-powerful-leadership-in-painful-times-with-dr-julia/id1531925530?i=1000583827505

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/75ccIWoftUMuQ95YEBb2wk

Terminal Value Podcast: https://terminalvalue.biz/captivate-podcast/powerful-leadership-in-painful-times-with-dr-julia-digangi/

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