Queen Elizabeth asked Professor Garicano, the director of research at the London School of Economics in 2008 "Why did nobody notice it?” She referred to the financial crisis. The professor told the Queen: "At every stage, someone was relying on somebody else and everyone thought they were doing the right thing."
In the book, The Leadership Lab (Lewis and Malmgren, n.d.), the authors list Western reductionist thinking and the tendency to apply narrow logic as the main reasons for not seeing the crisis coming. They argue that the so-called left-brain thinking misses the insights that come from the right-brain thinking that focusses on the irrational things like imagination, curiosity and emotion. By not activating their right-brain thinking, leaders were unable to imagine that the failure of the entire banking system was possible.
Historically, business leaders have led with their left-brain. They believed that a stronger leader is one that able to analyse a situation, absorb data and decide among rational alternatives. Generations of MBA graduates have been trained to use these principles. However, the context these leaders operate in today is constantly shifting and increasingly complex. On one day they need to decide to close a plant in their home country. On the next day, they need to form an alliance with a foreign business partner. Experienced leaders learn that in every decision they make, there is an upside as well as a downside, and it is impossible to make the "right" decision based on analysing existing data alone.
Many however find the ambiguity exhausting and overwhelming as they attempt to rely on data only to make sense of the complexity. Their intuition may tell them they are moving in the wrong direction, yet they are unable, or unwilling, to trust it because it does not provide the rational explanations expected from them. The internal tension leads to increasing pressure on leaders who are not aware of how their right brain could help them make sense of the alternatives. They start to suppress their instincts and with that, oppress their curiosity, imagination, emotional connections and all other qualities their right brain has to offer. This ultimately undermines the impact they are making as leaders and can lead to an existential crisis.
To be able to lead well in this new context, leaders need to start trusting and using their right brain as much as their left brain. A good example is Daniel Zhang, the new Chairman and CEO of Alibaba. In an interview, he explains how fun and curiosity, typical right-brain activities, motivate him and make him a better leader. He also talks about how his intuition is as important as the data they analyse: "Our advantage is having huge amounts of data [..]. But as a leader, you have to see something which others cannot, and often that comes down to focusing on customer pain points. Pain points mean opportunity. And that’s why, every year, I do a self-evaluation process during Chinese New Year. I ask myself, How many new ideas, how many new businesses did I initiate last year? I don’t focus my self-evaluation on the performance of the existing businesses: this is about the new opportunities.”
Perhaps it is time for every leader to ask themselves: how much of my brain am I suppressing? And why?
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