With all the focus on elections and deciding what we want from our leaders, we should perhaps consider the key issue of how their minds work. Are we looking for left-brain dominance, with its focus on numbers, critical thinking, logical analysis and objectivity, or do we want a right brainer who would be more intuitive, creative, expressive and able to read emotions?
Of course, this is a somewhat crude demarcation, and we don’t want to be too superficial, or over-psychologise the matter, but the theory grew out of the research work done by 1981 Nobel winner Roger Sperry. He said that the two halves of the brain focus on different thought processes and people either have one or the other as dominant in their thinking.
Most people obviously employ both left and right sides of the brain when solving problems, but our mission is to understand which side of the brain is driving the decisions made by our leaders, and how the consequences of their thought processes will impact our lives every day.
Looking at the South African CEO-landscape, it is clear that boards of directors have a strong preference for left brainers when appointing a new CEO. Look at how many of them are accountants, or actuaries or engineers.
But then we also have to look more closely at the entrepreneurial CEOs who have built the most successful businesses and ask,what is their style of thinking? One would presume that an entrepreneur would be a creative, right-brain thinking person, not so?
If we then include accountants and actuaries like Brian Joffe, Adrian Gore and Jannie Mouton, all outstanding entrepreneurs and all ostensibly left brainers, how is it that they have built their various empires being so logical, analytical and objective? Or have they in each case defected from their left-brain home base and come out of the right-brain closet?
It’s interesting how in the Europe now, a number of very conservative left- brain types are saddled with fixing the mess made,presumably, by their more intuitive and creative predecessors. In Italy, Mario Monti, the arch bureaucrat and clearly a rabid left brainer, is making great strides in fixing the mess created by his flamboyant predecessor. Silvio Berlusconi, if he used his brain at all, was most probably a right brainer
The same thing in troubled Greece where, the unelected Lucas Papademos, a distinguished academic and previous governor of the reserve bank, is now applying every trick of disciplined left-brain thinking to rescue the ship from sinking.
Surveying the messy scene of our own political leadership, what would you have said the thinking style of Thabo Mbeki was? Analytical to the core, one would have thought, very cerebral and rigidly systematic. So, does that mean populist figures like President Jacob Zuma and ex-ANCYL president Julius Malema, with their intuitive decision making and ability to read the emotions of the confused electorate, are right-brained?
More important is the need to make a decision about what we want, and what in the end makes for the best level of competence, sound governance and good character of the leaders we wish to elect.
To generalise again, remember that even the best kind of right brainer can be difficult to live with. Look at how the board of Apple fired Steve Jobs, a right-brain genius if ever there was one, before bringing him back.
People with strong left brain-functionality are often seen as a “safe pair of hands” and provide stability. But they may lack the flash of inspiration and the creative ability to solve major strategic problems, á la Mbeki.
So, what do we want and what works best? The answer would seem to be that in times of trouble and when the economy is sliding downwards, the “safe pair of hands” model is what one should go for. In a more buoyant situation when business has its tail up and there is a greater appetite for risk, the inspired, creative thinker can make for a leap of accelerated growth and progress. Think again of Apple.
But buoyancy must be anchored by the steady hand of control and systematic thinking. Exuberance and spontaneous decisions can light a fire, but when they are not filtered by careful deliberation they can cause chaos. Is the e-tolling debacle we are sitting with right now an example of this?
All this is why decision-making with the benefit of a team makes for better leadership than relying on an individual leader, even when they are celebrated “trophy CEOs” or political stars. Such a team should have individuals from both camps to ensure that the full benefits of left and right-brain thinking can be employed. Balance is what does it in the end. DM