Helping Leaders to Do the Right (Brain ) Thing

If you pause and consider the best leaders you've worked with in your career, who comes to mind? What were the qualities that made them special?

In my experience, the best leaders aren’t single minded or self-serving; they use both sides of their brain to craft strategy, solve problems and engage people. They are demanding, but fair; empathetic, but results oriented. Great leaders cast light, not shadows.

In his classic book, On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis calls this “whole brain leadership.” He notes that the logical and analytical leader dominated C-suites in American organizational life for decades, but Bennis believes that leaders and their companies need a heavy dose of creativity and intuition, which he calls right brain qualities. 

Daniel Pink argues the same point in his book, A Whole New Mind. He suggests—as Bennis does—that leadership behaviors can be learned. Pink offers six aptitudes to methodically develop a right brain, conceptual mindset, which he says are a catalyst for the future’s business elite.  

This is good news for communicators because we have the opportunity and ability to influence our leaders to bring their “whole brain” to the challenges facing organizations. Challenges that are best met when leaders discover the best version of themselves.

“Let’s try something different”

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of working with a leader at a health care organization who, with some encouragement and his own self-reflection, realized that he must trigger his right brain more often to lead effectively.

I was in his office when he shared a complaint letter with me from a disability advocacy group about the experience of a patient at one of our company’s medical offices. The letter outlined numerous obstacles the disabled patient faced when accessing the building and examination room.

This leader’s first instinct—a left brain solution—was to shuffle the letter off to our legal department for a standard response. Instead, he said “let’s try something different.” So he picked up the phone, placed a call to his peer at the association and began a conversation.

It was this moment of clarity that launched a long-term partnership with the association to design new medical buildings and retrofit existing facilities to better accommodate patients with disabilities. The halo effect of this decision was immeasurable goodwill, industry awards for collaboration and highly flattering media coverage. All because a leader used his right brain to do the right thing.

Can you influence your leader?

For some leaders, receiving advice to change their behaviors is as welcome as a robocall at dinner time. But as communicators, we know that building trust and a bond with key stakeholders—especially employees—begins with leaders aligning what they do with what they say and becoming more transparent. That’s why coaching leaders to bring their whole selves to the organization is a relevant and necessary discussion—even if it’s uncomfortable.

Here’s how:

Lean on Data and Examples

  • All leaders—even those with an already vibrant right brain—value data to make decisions. Appeal to that logical and analytical side with statistics and case studies.
  • Tell stories and cite anecdotes of how more frequent communications and better engagement feeds improved productivity and performance from employees.

Offer to Help

  • Not all leaders are equipped to flip a switch and make this behavioral transition. Tap into your expertise as a communicator and offer to help them get comfortable with the journey.
  • Invite an outsider—dare I say a communications consultant?—to assist your leader. It’s sad, but true, that many leaders value the opinions of someone from the outside more than their own team.

 Set the Tone

  • Show leaders that adopting and modeling this right brain style will give other leaders and managers permission to follow.
  • Pilot new, more open and authentic leadership styles in discrete areas of your organization. Demonstrate how it helps to capture the hearts, minds and loyalty of employees.  

By helping leaders to apply their right brain more freely, they will be better equipped to do the right thing for your organization.