Posted on

“Madam Secretary” characters as coaching metaphors

Madam Secretary Characters As Metaphors for Lizard Brain

If you’re familiar with the CBS hit TV show Madam Secretary, then you’ll recognize the major differences in problem solving between two of the main characters: Elizabeth McCord (Madam Secretary played by Tea Leoni) and Russell Jackson (POTUS’s Chief of Staff played by Zeljko Ivan).

In Martha Beck’s coaching style, she refers to people’s natural “Fight or Flight” instinct as their “inner lizard.”* While one’s lizard brain is immensely useful in emergency situations when there is clear and present danger (in fact, that’s its sole purpose for existing), it often oversteps its bounds into everyday situations which results in anxiety, worry and fatigue.

Our lizard brain is what screams in our ear that we “don’t have enough (blank)” and “something terrible is about to happen.” I have more than a few clients who’s lizard brains have gone wild and cause them a lot of suffering, stress and sleepless nights. Therefore, I wanted to provide an example of two different ways of living with our lizard brain to bring this concept to life.

Russell Jackson’s character essentially lets his lizard brain rule anything and everything he does and says. There is not a single episode where he isn’t ranting and raving about some impending disaster and then screaming at people to fix it now before the world comes to an end. Between his high pitched squealing voice, flailing hands, shortness of breath and either completely blood-drained stark-white face or bright red-blood-boiling rage…he is one heartbeat away from a heart attack. (And actually – SPOILER ALERT – in Season 3 he actually does have a heart attack during one of his rants.)

On the other hand, Madam Secretary always seems to maintain her calm, cool and collected composure…even, and especially, in the face of some pretty daunting situations calling for swift actions that truly do have world-changing consequences attached to them.  Don’t get me wrong, there are times when her lizard brain gets the better of her, but for the most part she approaches present problems with creative solutions. It’s why the job was given to her…and why she is one of the most trusted advisors to POTUS. She models one of our 8 core coaching values:

“Exist in perpetual creative response to whatever is present.” ~ Yogi Amrit Desai

Because of this approach, our heroine always finds a way when, to everyone else, it looks absolutely impossible.  She’s the “fixer.” She (and her amazing support tribe both at home and the office) makes the impossible possible and she does it with grace under pressure.

If you watch the show, it’s no wonder Elizabeth McCord’s character is beloved by all the fans of the show. We admire her morals, her ability to laugh and make jokes when the sky seems to be falling, and her aptitude for living “in perpetual creative response to the present.”

Whereas we’d never want to be Russell Jackson. I can practically see the scales on his skin. Every time I see him on the show I just want to pet his head and calm him down by saying, “There, there, Russell. Thanks for sharing. Take a deep breath and go back to your office now.”

If you don’t watch the show, I encourage you to give it a whirl. You might have some insight about how your own inner lizard affects your blood pressure and limits your ability to find innovative solutions to various challenging circumstances.  I’ve included a video clip example of the two characters’ approach to the same circumstance:

*Copyright, Martha Beck,