Management, Leadership and the Whole-Brained Approach

As long ago as the time of Hippocrates, around 400 years BC, it was known that the brain was divided into two halves with each half performing different functions and being responsible for different types of thinking. At that time it was known that the left hemisphere of the brain was responsible for rational, analytical and logical thought and was considered to be the essential part of the brain. The right hemisphere of the brain was thought to be the lesser half - at best passive, at worst, a remnant of an earlier stage of human development.

This view of the brain persisted until the 1950's, when the physician Roger Sperry discovered that the right half of the brain was responsible for different types of thinking. As a result of Sperry's Nobel Prize-winning work we learned that the left hemisphere reasoned sequentially, excelled at analysis and handled words. The right hemisphere reasoned holistically, recognised patterns and interpreted emotions and non-verbal expressions.

Since then we have learned how these hemispheres are themselves divided into the cerebral and limbic (upper and lower) sections, but for the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to consider only the left and right halves.

So what has all this got to do with management and leadership?

In Daniel Pink's thought provoking book 'A Whole New Mind', he describes how left-brained thinking has dominated the growth of organisations since the Industrial Revolution. During most of that period, organisations have been wrestling with the logistics of achieving consistent production processes, developing economies of scale and implementing sophisticated control mechanisms. More recently they have been automating processes using computer systems, itself an intrinsically logical technology.

Pink argues that by making everything so logical, we run the risk of becoming victims of our own success, in that many people are employed to perform tasks that are readily automated or capable of being transferred to lower cost economies. In the future, the value that western economies can add will come from right-brained thinking.

Sir Martin Sorrell, the Chief Executive of WPP, made a similar point when he said: "Intangible differentiations are becoming more and more important as technological transfer is easier and as people can copy things much more effectively."

At MyBrain we use a specialised questionnaire to measure people's preferences for different styles of thinking. The results provide a metaphorical indication as to which parts of their brain are more dominant than the others, and therefore which thinking styles the person concerned prefers to use. When the results are aggregated for large groups of people in commercial organisations, they tend to be relatively balanced with a slight left-brain dominance; 52% left and 48% right. However, when we profile senior management teams, the results tend to be more extreme, with a typical team profile showing a 55-60% dominance in left-brain thinking.

Moreover, we find that this is not a one-off bias affecting senior teams; it is a trend within businesses that sees left-brained thinking becoming increasingly dominant at successively higher levels in the organisational hierarchy.

In the training work undertaken by our sister company Extensor we are frequently encouraging organisations to place greater emphasis on the development of leadership skills relative to management skills, so it is interesting to consider how this relates to the move towards more right-brained thinking described above.

One of the first people to draw a distinction between leadership and management was John Kotter, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School. According to Kotter, management is about planning, controlling, and putting appropriate structures and systems in place, whereas leadership has more to do with anticipating change, coping with change, and adopting a visionary stance.

To assist people in defining leadership for themselves, an exercise we frequently run during courses involves asking delegates to think of a number of people; a friend who helped them through a difficult time, a colleague who they regarded as a mentor or a teacher who helped them at school. We then ask them to write down a list of words that they could use to describe what it was that these people did. The types of words and phrases that emerge are as follows:

Advised. Believed in me. Cared. Challenged. Championed. Didn't tell. Empowered. Encouraged. Focused on the positives. Gave confidence. Gave direction. Gave me a sense of purpose. Gave up their time. Had faith. Helped. Inspired. Listened. Praised. Shared emotions. Showed faith. Showed respect. Supported. Trusted. Understood. Valued

Of all of the words and phrases that emerge, the most common ones by far are, in order of frequency of occurrence;

1. Believed in me
2. Listened
3. Encouraged
4. Trusted
5. Inspired

All of which are right-brained words and phrases. By comparison, typical left-brained words would be; 'analytical', 'planned', 'structured', 'risk averse'.

Leadership can therefore be defined as a more right-brained activity, while management is more left-brained. As Kotter explains; "where leadership is about knowing what to do, management is about knowing how to do it." Both skills are important and both are necessary. The important thing for organisations is to possess both.

The challenge for organisations is therefore to be 'whole-brained'; especially at senior management levels where leadership skills are of increasing importance.
The question is; can good managers also be good leaders?

In our opinion the answer is "yes". The reason we say this is that the results we get from the Brain Dominance questionnaires provide two profiles. One tends to be the thinking preference a person displays at work and the other their thinking preferences when at home. Where these two profiles differ, the 'home-life' profile is more right-brained than the 'work-life' profile, suggesting that people alter their thinking style for work.

In the organisations where we have profiled significant numbers of people, the shift from left to right-brained thinking tends to be between 2% and 4%. While this may not sound like much, it generally moves the sample from being left-brained to being more balanced and 'whole brained'.

This is not to suggest that at work people are acting out of character, simply that their surroundings and the work environment results in a different set of preferences.

In conclusion it appears that many senior people display a greater aptitude for leadership in their private life than they do at work. It also appears that the culture that typically exists in the majority of our organisations encourages managerial thinking while simultaneously suppressing leadership thinking. Since leadership is synonymous with change and since we are living through a period of unprecedented change, the implication is that to thrive and survive organisations need to look for ways to adapt their culture to enable them to tap into some of the innate strengths of their employees - strengths that are currently being left in the car park.

Published July 2009

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