Whole-brained leadership and influence

Chris* has a beautiful mind, devouring information at an astonishing rate, calculating like a human spreadsheet and breaking down problems with faultless logic. His gifts naturally led him to a top-tier management consultancy, where his talents were augmented with proprietary methodologies, strategic frameworks and best practices. He succeeded early and often as a consultant, and earned an MBA at a prestigious business school on the East Coast. Sounds like the kind of talent employers would kill for, right?

Yes…at least initially. Ten years later, Chris was struggling to keep his job as corporate strategy leader at a Fortune 1000 technology company, after leading a change initiative that failed spectacularly.

Crestfallen, Chris couldn’t understand where he’d gone wrong. He clung to the only explanations that seemed logical to him; he was a victim of politics, weak C-suite leadership and an underperforming team. The problem couldn’t be him, right? Unfortunately for Chris, this wasn’t his last failure. He was ultimately fired.

Chris then did a very brave and difficult thing. He openly owned his failures and learned from them. Seeking out honest assessments from old colleagues and friends (including me), he embarked on a personal change management initiative. He even engaged an industrial psychologist to improve his chances of success.

His efforts paid off and he learned that several factors were hobbling his performance. Foremost among them was an over-reliance on his gifts. He viewed IQ is inherently superior to EQ, that the strength of logic and analysis will break down any barrier. What he did not realize was that the barriers he was breaking down were people. It wasn’t that his analyses weren’t sound…it’s just that no one gave a $@#%%^. They tuned him out.

We often describe people as “right brained” or “left brained”. Creativity, emotion and imagination are said to reside on the right side. Logic, objectivity and analysis are on the left. Split Brain Theory is an overgeneralization, but it effectively illustrates the fact that people are two-sided. Personal preferences are the norm, but the vast majority of people are a mix of left and right.

Psychologists tell us that effective leadership, especially when it comes to change, depends more on the ability to pull than to push. The challenge of leadership is to take others to new places they wouldn’t otherwise go to. To pull this off, full engagement of both brain hemispheres is a necessity. “Pulling” requires capturing the whole brain.

Chris learned the importance of the “whole brained” approach the hard way. Here are his top three lessons learned:

  1. Importance of self awareness & mindfulness: To understand one’s communication style and “sidedness”, we need to be self-aware. Seeking 360 degree feedback from people we trust is one way to achieve this. Once aware, the bigger challenge is to be mindful of our weaknesses and develop strategies to overcome our preferences. For example, Chris benefited greatly from adding the following to the top of EVERY meeting in his agenda: “spend 5 minutes talking about family, vacations, hobbies and interests.” It didn’t come naturally at first, but his efforts were authentic and with practice he became more effective at building personal connections.
  2. Engage people at the emotional level: Cutting to the chase and focusing only on analysis may be right for some audiences, but will be ineffective for most. The best approach is to use narratives that are both emotionally engaging and analytical. There is a good reason we hear so much about storytelling in the business press these days. Storytelling combines hard facts and emotion in a way that is both persuasive and engaging. For mixed audiences, the only effective strategy is to apply a full-brain methodology like storytelling.
  3. Watch out for the corporate “tough-guy” culture: Corporate cultures that treat fun, storytelling and emotion as frivolous wastes of time are missing out on a huge source of energy and passion in the workplace. Research clearly shows that happy, well-rested and healthy people far outperform their workaholic peers. For a left brainer like Chris, it’s all too easy to fall into the corporate tough-guy pattern. It is easier to believe that emotion has no place in the office, than admit that one has a weakness. Taking this path to the dark side is guaranteed to put you on the path to underachievement. For more on this subject, I recommend The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor.

* Names and ancillary details have been modified for the purpose of de-identification

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