From left-brain to whole-brain leadership
The dominant type of leadership that we have seen for a long time and are still seeing, can be summarized as “left-brain” leadership. As I described in an earlier article and based on Accenture’s report on “whole-brain” leadership, left-brain leadership is characterized by analytical, quantitative, fact-based and linear thinking. As Accenture’s research shows, it is this kind of leadership that we still find in the large majority of executive suites. And it is also this type of leadership that is still mostly trained in MBA programs around the world.
In answer to this state of affairs, Accenture’s report argues that, in today’s challenging world, we need leaders that use the right half of their brain as well. This half of our brain is responsible for imagination and creativity, for abstract and holistic thinking and also for feelings and intuitions. Because today’s world is non-linear, complex and dynamic, so the argument goes, the left-part of the brain is simply too limited to address the challenges we face.
Transparency, empathy and meaning
McKinsey’s article is based on a number of different studies that were conducted in 2018 and 2019. From these studies it highlights what they see as the three most important “leadership imperatives” that society calls for. They are:
- Transparency: based on a study of the fashion industry, the article concludes that consumers care deeply about the social and environmental impact of the companies they buy from. About 50 % of customers actively look for information on this and want their want companies to be transparent about it.
- Empathy: based on a study of Ashoka fellows—exemplars of social entrepreneurs selected by the Ashoka organization—it was found that these leaders engage in “cognitive empathy,” which means that they consciously attempt to recognize and understand other people’s emotional states and act on that.
- Meaning: based on that same study and additional case studies, they conclude that society wants leaders driven by purpose and meaning and truly want to make a difference to the world and their organizations. While they don’t support it with evidence, the idea brought forward is that, in terms of the triple bottomline or 3Ps, if organizations are driven by purpose (People and Planet), Profits will come.
From whole-brain to whole-person leadership
In the light of Accenture’s use of the brain as a metaphor for the kind of leadership needed, McKinsey’s article goes one step further. It not only confirms the importance of “whole-brain” leadership, but it reveals a need for what we can call “whole-person” leadership. This is leadership that is not only driven by both halves of the brain, but by everything that makes us human, including our emotions and drive to help other people.
This “new leadership imperative” is of course not new. Most of the various lists of great leaders that circulate, include leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. These leaders are exemplar whole-person leaders for whom transparency, empathy and meaning play a central role.
Furthermore, the rediscovery of whole-person leadership is happening at other places too. In his book Reinventing Organizations, for example, Frederic Laloux basically says the same, and in a more systematic and evidence-based manner than the McKinsey article.
But what makes the McKinsey article especially interesting is that it comes from McKinsey. If there is any firm famous for their rigorous analytical—and thus left-brain—approach, it is McKinsey. Rooted in science and engineering, the heart of their approach is deliberately left-brain. And, as we can learn from books such as The McKinsey Way by Ethan Rasiel, in that approach, empathy and emotions, for example, should be left out because these may hinder objective analysis.
This makes me wonder: will McKinsey apply their insights to their own way of working too? Of course the McKinsey Quarterly article is not official McKinsey policy. But it does beg the question whether McKinsey will practice what they preach. After all, being the new leadership imperative, it is what society asks for.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
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