Leading with both sides of your brain:

why strategic thinking is no longer enough


Published on: December 2018

Written by: Jacqueline Brodnitzki

Recently, a CEO of an innovative technology company told us, “We’ve got very strong technical experts whom I hesitate to put in front of important partners because they are unable to synthesize complex information and contribute efficient and productive information.” She went on to say that it’s limiting these leaders’ careers and the company’s succession planning strategy.

This conversation reminded me of Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, in which he argues that while left-brained, logical thinking is important, it’s not enough. Jobs highly focused on left brained work, like accounting and research, are being sent overseas. To be successful we need the ability to think strategically coupled with the right-brained ability to create new insights, tie it all together, and communicate in an engaging way.

At Bates, we’ve also seen this proven in our research on executive presence, the qualities that enable a leader to engage, inspire, align, and move people to act. Two specific facets of executive presence that we measure in leaders are Practical Wisdom (displaying highly honed qualities of insight and judgement that get to the heart of issues and produce prudent decisions) and Vision (generating an inspiring, enterprise-wide picture of what could be; recognizing emerging trends, and engaging all in strategy), both of which are pivotal to a leader’s credibility and require both left and right-brained thinking.

When we advise leaders to elevate Practical Wisdom, frequently the issue is not whether they have wisdom, but whether they deliver judgments and insights that others want and need. It’s often a matter of adjusting how the insights are being delivered. Can the leader cut quickly to the “need to know” information, or is it buried in other information that’s not particularly practical or relevant? In working with leaders on Vision, which we define as equal parts strategic thinking and inspiration, it’s often inspiration that’s lacking.

So, how does a left-brained leader develop more right-brained thinking?

  • Communicate top themes: Practice regularly summarizing your thoughts into the most critical 3-5 themes and the 3 most relevant points for each, in short bullet-points. In doing so, you’ll cut through the details which enables you to communicate at a more senior level. You’ll start forcing your brain to lift out of the weeds and summarize in a way that will be easier for others to understand.
  • Communicate a big idea: We’ve all sat through meetings filled with update after boring update. Why spend time talking about something that’s much better communicated in writing? Instead, use meeting time to present a valuable idea and discuss how to bring it to life. A big idea is a concise proposal with an outcome and specific benefit to the business, all in 25 words or less. Your ability to craft a compelling big idea is a great way to practice right-brained thinking and a sure way to differentiate yourself.
  • Tell stories: Create 3-5 business-relevant stories to use in a variety of settings. Storytelling is a sophisticated form of communication that reaches not only the minds of your audience, but more importantly their hearts. While we often think with our minds, we are motivated by and make decisions with our hearts. Storytelling is a great way to elevate perceptions of your Vision. Here’s a post about how to craft impactful business-relevant stories.

These strategies, practiced consistently and over time, will help you to not only develop stronger right-brained thinking, they’ll also help you communicate more clearly and be perceived as a credible leader. As Daniel Pink’s research and our own Bates research shows, these attributes are essential for effective leadership and your future progression, especially when elevating into scarce senior leadership roles.

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