With the CCDF reauthorization, we are in a period of transition. The old rules are on the way out, and the new rules are being implemented. As leaders, we too are in transition. Some of our leadership practices are less of a fit as we pivot to meet the new requirements. In response to these new CCDF requirements, we must change more than the systems we are leading; we must change ourselves as leadership practitioners. A useful approach to establishing change in ourselves is to see ourselves as the interventions or the instruments of leadership. The idea that the instrument of leadership is the self[1] comes from Jim Kouzes, a leadership scholar and experienced executive. This concept expands with the notion that engineers have their computers, and painters have their brushes and canvases; but leaders—we have ourselves. Because the instrument of leadership is the self, mastering the art of leadership comes from the mastery of self or, as Peter Senge has coined it, “personal mastery.”[2] This makes leadership deeply personal. It also makes leadership about self-development. The good news is that we, as humans, are biologically wired to learn; we simply can’t stop ourselves from doing it. What matters most in the learning process is the intention we put behind it. Senge outlines this intention as the “discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision of what’s important to us, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality as objectively as possible.”[3] To use ourselves as instruments to lead, we need to understand that before we can become experts, we must learn, practice, and perform. Being an instrument of change doesn’t happen overnight. We don’t move forward to immediate success. It requires introspection and learning.

In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Senge refers to this notion as “metanoia,” which means shifting our minds so that we can meet the new leadership requirements of today. This type of learning is not about consuming information, following courses, reading books, or attending conferences. The type of learning he is referring to is our willingness and ability to shift our minds. This means we are willing and able to do the following:

  • Change ourselves: to learn is to change oneself, to change one’s mind and behavior, and to recreate ourselves for new work.
  • Acquire new skills: through learning, we should be able to do something we were not able to do before.
  • See differently: through this learning process and shifting, we perceive the world differently.
  • Become more creative: most importantly, through learning, we extend our ability to create in new and innovative ways.

Now, the act of leading the self and others is more about our own behavior[4]. The 20th century gave us a broad and diverse range of psychological and social research—mainly created through observation and analysis—that has informed our understanding of human behavior. However, in the 21st century, the fields of neuroscience and neurotechnology have made revolutionary discoveries about the origins of behavior deep inside the brain and nervous system. We now have a far more sophisticated understanding of what really drives behavior. Dr. David Rock of the Neuroleadership Institute has woven hundreds of studies into models, one known as SCARF and the other as SEEDS, discussed below. These studies, particularly within the field of social, cognitive, and affective neuroscience, give us insight into the true drivers of human social behavior underlying the human brain.[5] Leadership and adult learning experts are beginning to apply these insights in the real world. We want to share such insights with the early childhood field because they have important implications for our leadership practice as we work to improve system coherence, integration, and how we advance equity in our early childhood systems.

Using ourselves intentionally relies in large part on our level of awareness about the impact we make and our ability to make choices to direct and modify that impact. Neuroscience is telling us that consciously, and often unconsciously, when we interact with someone, we’re meeting some of their social needs and perhaps also depriving them of others. That is, we’re using language and engaging in behavior that either uplifts and motivates people or causes them to withdraw or shut down. Developing a deeper awareness of self is the key to understanding our impact. We can do this by developing our mind to be aware of the self, others, situations, and patterns so that we can use ourselves as an instrument of change. Intentionally deepening our self-awareness and self-management becomes the first part of shifting our minds.

In Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman lists self-awareness and self-management as the first two dimensions of what he has termed emotional intelligence. True self-awareness requires reflective self-examination, feedback from others, and knowledge of who we are (including the neurobiological perspective of our brains), where we are going, and why we are going there. Self-awareness is not something that is intrinsic; we develop it over time, often with the help of others guiding the self-discovery process. Two cutting-edge, brain-based models were developed by David Rock in the last 10 years to help us improve our knowledge of who we are. We can do this by understanding the perspective of our brain and how that can enhance our abilities to leverage leadership interactions in new and effective ways. The science supporting these models comes from over 150 neuroscientific studies. Rock has woven these studies into several models, summarizing the findings into frameworks—or conceptual containers—to help us see the discoveries more clearly, to receive them more deeply, and to assimilate the material more quickly. He shares this powerful material in this design format because, as it turns out, our brains love to learn with conceptual containers.


[1] Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2017). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations, pp. 305, 386, 399. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[2] Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization, p. 7. New York, NY: Doubleday.

[3] See footnote 2.

[4] See footnote 2.

[5] Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Neuroleadership Journal, 1, 1–9.