Leadership uses the Other Lobe of the Brain too

May 5, 2009 at 10:06 PM
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Categories: Academic Blog brain

As we continue with this blog, we find ourselves drawn to other topics outside experiential education, but ones that seem to utilize the same principles as we have been writing about.  Here is one on leadership that developed between Jim and a colleague at work at Northeastern.


-Shwen and Jim



For several years, I (Jim) have been having an ongoing conversation with Cynthia Bainton about leadership.  She works in administration in Bouve College and I worked closely with her (and others) when I was Dean of Arts and Sciences at Northeastern University.  She also reads this blog.  As before, we have been discussing leadership, but now we are doing it from the perspective of the role of the same kind of emotional intelligence that applies to experiential education.  Why could not leadership have an “Other Lobe of the Brain” component? Recently were discussing a book she read that seemed to capture the essence of this point.  Cynthia writes below.


The organizational behavior subject that fascinates me the most is leadership.  During the past four years, I have dissected, poked, and prodded at leadership styles with my professors and classmates in a number of organizational behavior courses in Northeastern’s evening MBA program.  Why are some people good leaders and others not?  Are you born a good leader or can you learn to be one?  During recent discussions I have had with Jim, we have discussed the essential characteristics and abilities good leaders possess. We thought it would be interesting to talk about these leadership essentials here.


One of the leaders I have been most inspired by has been Captain Michael Abrashoff.  I was introduced to Abrashoff by one of my professors in his course “Managing Professionals and High Performance Teams.”  In his book It’s Your Ship, Abrashoff recounts how over his two year assignment, he led his ship, the USS Benfold, from being one of the worst to being the best in the Pacific fleet and ultimately, in his words, “the best damn ship in the Navy.”  So how did he do it?  Abrashoff methodically implemented a carefully thought out leadership plan that would allow him to reach his goals of achieving a high level of morale and retention rate among the crew, beating every metric in the Pacific fleet that the Navy used to measure battle readiness, and doing it all under budget.  What I was struck with at the beginning of Abrashoff’s narrative was how he admitted that he had made many mistakes in the past but that he had learned from these mistakes as well as his successes. He had thought about these things and would use all his experiences to create a new leadership model.  It is important to note that throughout his book, Abrashoff gives credit to his former boss Secretary of Defense William Perry for serving as a mentor and role model.


This brings me to the first leadership essential – the ability to form, develop, and promote teams, and to be a fully functioning team member even when you get to the very top.  Abrashoff took to heart that old saying, “you’re only as good as the people who work for you.”  His every action communicated to the crew that he couldn’t do it alone, he needed them and he needed them to be their very best.  Some of the practices Abrashoff employed were very simple.  He personally met with all 310 crew members from the top officers to the lowest ranking sailors.  He asked them about their future goals, their hobbies, and learned where they had grown up and the names of their family members.  In getting to know the crew, he was able to determine their special interests and skills and assign them to jobs that would be the best match for their abilities.  This resulted in the crew working harder and taking pride in their jobs and the team grew stronger.  Abrashoff invited the crew to tell him every time they came up with an idea of how to do things better.  He evaluated the idea on the spot and if he decided to implement it, he immediately announced the idea and the crew member’s name over the ship’s public address system.  The crew celebrated individual member’s achievements together and the team grew stronger.  Abrashoff broke down the traditional military hierarchy – he often ate on the lower decks with the sailors instead of in the officers’ mess.  His officers followed his example and the team grew stronger.  By the end of his two-year tour, Abrashoff had created such a competent crew that they could operate the ship without him, but they didn’t want to.  Abrashoff himself had become an essential member of the team.


The tie to the blog lies in how the Captain was able to see at once the individual members of his team and the whole functioning of that team.  He could put himself in the place of the individuals and work their perspectives into his goals for the team.  He transmitted to them a sense of respect and duty (to the team, the ship).  We are submitting for discussion that these outcomes are the results of calculations of emotional brain circuits “re-purposed” for logical evaluation where potential outcomes must be assessed.  In higher education, that potential logical outcome might be whether a student should try to go to law school or shift to some other career, like public policy, that has captured their attention in courses.  One way to help decide is to try working at a law firm and see how it feels.  Most students in America do that only after they are admitted and some end up hating it. 


Many neuroscientists believe that this kind of “re-purposing” of brain circuitry occurs in vision when you close your eyes and imagine what your location looks like, or in the motor system where “mirror neurons” fire when you code the image of someone drinking a cup of coffee.  It is not really fair to call it “re-purposing.”  This may have been the original purpose once evolution built such circuits for sensing and moving but took advantage of them for the more abstract purpose of thinking.  Emotional circuits that were built for the purpose of displaying emotion or coding the emotional states of others, would then be used to make value-based decisions about how to interact with others as a leader or how to choose a major in College or a career in life or even make a purchase (e.g. Neuroeconomics, the “Descartes’ Error” book by Damasio that started this blog)?


This is the first application of this blog to a topic that may seem at first to be outside the field of college and experiential education.  Let us know what you think?

The Music of Thought and Emotion: clinical interaction in social work

2 Responses to “Leadership uses the Other Lobe of the Brain too”

  1. Vanessa says:

    I think there also needs to be a certain amount of chraristmatic authority in a leadership figure. Historically, a leader is not always the good guy as Nazi Germany and religious cults have proven. Regardless, these people were charismatic leaders and gained a following. Perhaps one piece that is missing from this bit is that in order for there to be a leader, there must also be followers. This calls to play some fairly basic social psychology processes such as obedience to authority, persuasion, conformity, and consistency. Humans are in a way equipped to behave according to these processes, like it or not, so maybe a leader is someone who is able to manipulate such processes. This is a little controversial, but I figured I would go there for discussion’s sake.

  2. Cynthia says:

    Ashley and Vanessa, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    Ashley, I agree. I was introduced to this concept of leadership on many levels of an organization in another of my business courses. Every employee has the potential to lead, for example, by mentoring individuals outside his/her own work group, by submitting ideas to a supervisor on how to perform work in a more efficient and less costly manner, or by modeling a positive work ethic for others. When every employee leads, the organization improves significantly.

    Vanessa, this is a very interesting subject that gets into psychology of both the leader and the follower. Why are we inspired to follow some leaders but feel compelled to follow others? I think that leaders do need to manipulate people sometimes in order to be effective. However, there is manipulating followers for the common good versus manipulating followers purely for the leader’s own interests – two very different things.

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