Scientists are rediscovering the virtues of the right hemisphere of our brains, the seat of emotion, intuition and empirical intelligence.
As our world becomes more and more connected, it’s no surprise that a new movement born on the West Coast is proclaiming the supremacy of the right side of the brain. The media is buzzing about it, university researchers are studying it, and prestigious journals like Brain and Behavior are dedicating articles to it.
The right brain is the main source of emotional intelligence (EI). It has become a cultural phenomenon, and understanding how to tap into it as a leader can make a world of difference.
Our brain is made up of two hemispheres with distinct functions. The left hemisphere is the reasoning side: the zone of language, cognition and scientific logic. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is home to our artistic, intuitive side: the seat of emotions, impulses and pragmatic thinking. Unlike the left side, the right brain is characterized by the speed of its calculations and its ability to manage complexity. On the right, time isn’t sequential and linear, but instantaneous and cyclical. Its language is that of dreams, poetry and symbols.
When presented with a problem, the left brain will analyze it and reach a conclusion that it can explain and justify. This process may be slow and laborious. The right brain, however, will come up with an answer right away. It perceives reality as a whole, without interpretation. It establishes its own, often lateral links between facts or stories, acting as if it had access to an infinite database.
Establishing New Links
What does the new digital age have to do with the rediscovery of the right brain? The answer is surprising: both operate in a web structure (hence the term World Wide Web). This has one big advantage — the ability to create new links — and one big disadvantage — the difficulty of choosing between all possible outcomes. At work, a right-brain focused person races through their projects, but risks veering off topic. Aspiring to take charge according to their own personal reasoning, they’ll often leave their employers behind without asking questions and end up falling down.
Today’s youth has more developed right brains than their elders. Generation Z isn’t content plodding along with the Cartesian logic of their parents and professors. From very young, they share the digital logic of interconnected objects. They’re forever multitasking (one of the right brain’s talents), doing their homework while texting, posting on Instagram, listening to music and eating!
But in school, they’re bored. Lectures designed for the left brain leave them cold. Like many famous right-brain thinkers who were bad students — think Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein — they don’t feel stimulated and thus tune out.
Leading with your right brain and focusing on EI brings you the ability to better connect with people and understand them. In doing so, it facilitates the collective alignment of the organization. As leaders, it’s our job to establish these new links and utilize the function of both sides of the brain to be more productive while keeping our team members engaged.
The Brains of Geniuses
Many innovations and great works of art are the fruit of right-brain thinking, which Einstein called a “sacred gift,” as opposed to the left brain, which he described as our “faithful servant.” Mozart used his right brain to hear his music before he sat down and composed it. Steve Jobs envisaged his digital objects and their uses intuitively. Mahatma Gandhi was driven by a vison of an independent India; Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King also used right-brain thinking to “see” the far-off fruits of their struggles.
Right-brain thinkers are a minority in our science-worshipping culture. They’re often treated as “gifted” or “special,” and are characterized by their hypersensitivity and thirst for knowledge. They’re better at abstract thinking, but tend to get bored if they’re not engaged by a passion or a challenge. As a result, they often don’t seem to fit the “norms” imposed by society, so they feel misunderstood and lack self-confidence.
Now is the time to listen to and develop our right brains. Neuroscientists are studying the neural pathways involved, and whole new therapies are being developed to nurture them. This is the lesson that we must understand if we are to better comprehend our youth, adapt to the burgeoning digital world, and reach a higher level of knowledge.
Hortense le Gentil is an executive leadership coach and #MG100 Certified Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coach. She partners with leaders to analyze problems and determine best possible solutions. le Gentil’s coaching expertise includes cultural and self-awareness, entrepreneurship, leadership presence, leadership style, and organizational dynamics.
Prior to coaching full time, le Gentil spent over 30 years in business in various industries, including media consulting, advertising, technological innovation and entrepreneurship (in metals recycling). As director of advertising at media conglomerate Lagardere and later at L’Express-Roulata she managed advertising and strategy for clients that included Air France’s in-flight magazine, Madame. Before that, she spent 10 years as a media manager with Havas Worldwide, where she oversaw media consulting and strategy for clients including Chanel International, Peugeot, Rhone Poulenc and Canal+.
In 2007, le Gentil founded and became CEO of HLG Management, a metals recycling company for niche professions that developed a process to transform metal residue into reusable materials. She is now a Thinkers50 nominee and founder and CEO of JAY Consulting, a firm committed to coaching senior, including C-Suite, executives and entrepreneurs toward positive leadership behaviors.