Consider this as a description of an executive: thoughtful, calm, analytical thinker, fact-based decision maker, who doesn’t let emotions get in the way of tough decisions.
Then consider this as an alternative: warm: engaging, demonstrative, insightful thinker, open to possibilities, values driven decision maker, who is emotionally intelligent.
Does one or the other seem more … credible, more likely to fit the mould of leadership as we know it? Does one seem more human, more like the leader you want but you question if they will survive the tougher side of business?
I think we need both, either (rarely) in one person or (also rarely) in two complimentary leaders who share one role. If, however, we favour one style of leadership over the other, one focus in the practice of leadership, over another, we lose something vital that we all need.
Neuroscience has, for some time now, provided ample research that reason doesn’t lead our decisions. Contrary to the rationalist’s mindset of the seventeenth century, that proposed reason as the primary source of accurate conclusions, modern science concludes that there are two brains at work inside all of us. (Simply put!)
I’m not sure who first came up with the car metaphor and the question around which part of our brain is actually in the driver’s seat, but we imagine (or hope) that our reasoning brain is driving. Assuming the emotional brain is in the passenger seat, we believe it provides help but we also recognise it introduces complexities that appear not to help the reasoning brain at all. Many of us might wish, at times like this, if only I could silence this emotional brain, deal with the facts, and not get distracted, life would be a whole lot better.
I am going to bet, somewhere in your career, in a crucial meeting, you’ve heard a senior leader say; ‘to make a decision that people will respect, you have to park emotions.’ This is said with conviction. Dare I say it, even a sense of calm excitement. After all, fact-based decision making is considered by many leaders to be more effective/smarter/wiser/more… business savvy.
It’s the softer, kinder, people people (all in HR, P & C, L & D culture and the occasional leader ‘he’s just wonderful’) who are more emotional.
Of course, these people (unfortunately) are also not the big guns at the executive table. The big guns, who put emotion to one side, usually include finance, logistics, legal, and operations. They are the true fact-based, rational decision makers.
At this point, is something in your brain questioning whether this is true? Why does our gut scrunch up when someone instructs us to put emotion to one side? Why do we get a sense so many of the problems we are dealing with are related to the way we… relate rather than… what we do?
So, here are the facts, as it stands today: your emotional brain is still busy driving the car even when you think you are reasoning your way to a business savvy decision. Sure, good leaders marshal the data. They are thorough about research, broad scanning, analysis and reflection. But in the end, on the knife’s edge with a small or big decision, we ask ourselves, how do we feel about the decision?
Fortunately, more often than not, when we don’t feel right, chances are the effective person doesn’t actually proceed.
The best picture we have today suggests your feeling brain – representing your emotions, impulses, intuition, and instincts – is actually firmly gripping the steering wheel of your imaginary car. Your thinking brain – which controls conscious decision making, and your ability to reason through various options, or to make calculations and expresses ideas – is playing catch up, panicking about what lies ahead and sometimes shutting down entirely.
In fact, whilst the thinking brain might well be accurate, conscientious and (in theory) impartial, largely because of being systematic and rational in its approach, it is also unquestionably slow and, a bit like a Labrador after a big meal, inclined to want to go to sleep after a modest amount of effort. Your emotional brain, in stark contrast, is always up for a party, whether its first thing in the morning, or 3am when you should be sleeping. Up it pops, busy and distractable, worrying incessantly about things you can’t resolve there and then, ruminating on conversations you’ve had, over and over, or simply just being downright super critical of just about everything you are.
Uncontrolled, it can be hugely disruptive, as much as an uncontrolled rational mind can swiftly take you logically to the wrong destination.
But put them together and you have a very fine approach to just about anything.
I have always done a lot of exercise (I love it, starts my day off full of endorphins). I’ve done lots of different things, including running (or jogging). I’ve rarely run further than 12 km at a time, just to be clear, and likely a competitive jogger would lap me 6 times even in this distance.
However, I’ve noticed, on numerous occasions, an amazing phenomenon happens with running. I’m running a track, all is good in the world, heal-toe, breathing regularly, pumping my arms, enjoying the strength and flow, when literally out of the blue a thought enters my brain ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. The rational brain pipes up and says only 15 minutes to go, breathe through this, just keep going. All good.
Then something odd happens, about 60 seconds after that initial thought, I literally stop. It doesn’t matter what my logical brain says, I just stop. My brain functioning has been hijacked by a 6-year-old saying something like ‘IDON’TWHATCHEW’. And there you have it, I stop.
At its worst, that brain can get in the way of me achieving something important.
At its best, however, that brain also recognises a range of things that my reasoning brain doesn’t. It’s in tune with my will power, it recognises what happened with my sleep last night, its alert to everything I must do in the day ahead, its conscious of the value of taking things a bit easier today, its more inclined to be playful, relaxed, kind, compassionate, aware and, incidentally, overwhelmingly more powerful than my rationale brain.
I notice that when this brain is fully engaged, calm and present, then it is aware of, linked to and grateful for the reasoning brain. At a fundamental level, that part of your thinking that is sensitive, attuned, thoughtful, kind, values-driven, is acutely aware of the dispassionate reasoning brain. The ability to think things through, be driven by data, to sequence information in a reasoned way, is valued by the emotional brain – dare I say it – fundamentally needed.
As long as it doesn’t start driving the car of course.
If it thinks (word used advisedly) that it’s a better driver than my emotional brain, it tends to use data as a weapon, over-reasoning at the expense of intuitive insight, becoming impersonal, cold, possibly dictatorial in decision making rather than collaborative.
I think this is true for many leaders. It can feel more in control because it’s putting the messy, ambiguous stuff of life to one side. But it rarely ends in a better decision, or more effective leadership. With one exception, the reasoned conclusions of science. Why is science an exception? Because the practice is underpinned by a particular methodology, that proposes an idea then seeks to disprove this through the acquisition/analysis of data. When science proposes a position, then it is based on best available data. Scientists never say, ‘this is right’ or conclusively ‘this is a fact’. Science says, ‘based on best available data, this is where we are now’.
The challenge is that this position is not well understood by non-scientists and sometimes the emotional brain of the non-scientific world gets hold of the megaphone and starts to pump out messages to a bewildered audience that reflect the worst of our brain’s processing. Fiction becomes fact, we confuse belief and evidence, and story is treated as science.
Science without story, influence, visibility, and heartfelt engagement to the evidence and outcomes can’t influence our world.
Our whole brain is a wonderful thing. We should mindfully use it.
Founder, Speaker, Senior Consultant & Coach
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