Leadership, Management and the Brain

Sir Martin Sorrell, the CEO of advertising giant WPP, once said: "I can't remember which is which, whether it's left brain or right brain: but one is quantitative and one is qualitative and getting the balance between the two is critically important."
Alistair Schofield considers the question of whether organisations need to take a more balanced approach.

The brain is the most complicated organ in the human body and one that, even today, we do not fully understand.  An analogy that beautifully describes the complexity of the human brain is to compare it to the Amazon Rainforest.  The Rainforest covers an area of roughly 2.4 million square miles and contains roughly 100 billion trees, a similar number to the quantity of brain cells in the human brain.  Each tree will have roughly 15,000 leaves, which is the same as the average number of connections each brain cell establishes with other cells in the human body.  The number of connections in the human brain is therefore roughly equivalent to the total number of leaves in the Amazon Rainforest.

As long ago as the time of Hippocrates, around 400 BC, it was known that the brain was divided into two halves, with both halves 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 logical, analytical and rational thought and was considered to be the essential part of the brain.  The right hemisphere of the brain was thought of as the ‘lesser half’ - at best passive, at worst, a remnant from an earlier stage of human development.

This view of the brain persisted until the 1950’s, when a physician called 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 dealt with 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 subdivided into a number of other regions, 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 leadership and management?

In Daniel Pink’s thought provoking book ‘A Whole New Mind’, Pink 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, implementing sophisticated control mechanisms and developing economies of scale.  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 can be automated or are capable of being offshored 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.”

In our own business we use tool called MiND to measure people’s preferences for different styles of thinking. The results provide an 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 from groups of people working in commercial organisations are collated, they show a relatively even balance between the preferences people display for right- and left-brain thinking.  However, when we profile senior management teams, the results tend to be biased in favour of left-brain thinking. 
Moreover, we find that this is not a one-off bias affecting senior managers, it is a trend within businesses that sees left-brained thinking becoming increasingly dominant at successively higher levels in the organisational hierarchy.

A question I am frequently asked is whether male and female thinking preferences differ.  The answer is yes.  It is a broad generalisation but on average women tend to be more right-brained, thinking more emotionally and empathetically, while men tend to be more left brained, thinking in a more structured and logical fashion.

This is a point picked up by Joanna Krotz in her article ‘Do Women Make Better Managers’.  Krotz links the increasing need for right-brain thinking to the growing success of women in business.  Gregg Dyke, the former Director General of the BBC made a similar point when interviewed by the BBC in 2006; he said that right-brained thinking was becoming increasingly important and that of the people in the BBC he regarded as most suitable for promotion to senior management positions, 80% of them were women.

In my own work I am 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 a move towards more right-brained thinking.

One of the first people to draw a distinction between leadership and management was John Kotter, then 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 training 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 exactly what it was that these people did.  The following are examples of the types of words and phrases that people call out are as follows:



Believed in me
Didn’t tell
Focused on the positives
Gave confidence
Gave direction
Gave me a sense of purpose
Gave up their time

Had faith
Shared emotions
Showed faith
Showed respect
Valued me


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

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

All of which are right-brained words.  For comparison, typical left-brained words would be; ‘structured’, ‘planned’, ‘analytical’, ‘risk averse’. 

Leadership therefore tends to be a more right-brained activity, while management is more left-brained.  As Kotter explained, “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 is to possess both.

The challenge for organisations is therefore to be more balanced – combining the skills of both left and right brain thinking.  However, if the senior people tend to be more left-brained and the more junior people relatively more right-brained, doesn’t that provide the necessary balance?

The answer is no; as organisations need balance at all levels.  Take customer service as an example:

If you ask people to describe what differentiates great customer service from acceptable customer service, they will say things such as; “they regard me as a person rather than as an account number”, “I am treated with dignity and respect”, “they seem to care” and “they listen to my requirements”.

Great customer service requires an emotional and empathetic relationship.  As the journalist and writer Robert Heller wrote in ‘The Fusion Manager’; “All customer relationships rest on personal contact between the buyer and the seller.”  Sir Martin Sorrell made a similar point when he said; “You build brands by not just creating tangible differences, but emotional differences.”

But it is the senior management who are responsible for deciding strategy, for setting objectives and for hiring and firing staff.  More importantly, the way in which they behave dictates the culture for the whole organisation. 

If Sorrell, Pink, Krotz, Dyke, Kotter and Heller (the commentators quoted in this article) are to be believed, then organisations  will need to become more right-brained in the future – become more leadership oriented, more creative and more empathetic.

If the senior management and Boards of organisations achieve this shift, not only will they stand a better chance of succeeding in what Daniel Pink describes as the ‘Conceptual Age’, but they will also find that their employees bring more of their ‘true selves’ to work, that they will enjoy their work more and that, as a result, they will deliver better customer service.

The move towards more right-brained thinking in organisations is therefore not simply about creating a nicer environment; it can be justified in cold and hard commercial terms.

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.

- A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink, ISBN 1904879578
- The Fusion Manager by Robert Heller, ISBN 186197646
- What Leaders Really Do by John Kotter, Harvard Business Review, Article code R0111F
- Do Women Make Better Managers? by Johanna Krotz, Microsoft Small Business Centre, Articles and Insights