Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
A friend sent me a link to an interesting article about the business “mind.” (I usually put the word “mind” in scare quotes because I do not think it really exists, but it can be a helpful concept if one uses it carefully and metaphorically.) Writing in the Guardian, Syed Azmatullah thinks that business leaders need a new kind of mind if business is to become capable of solving the current complex problems we all are facing. Given the changing conditions of the world, he asks:
In a world of abundance where resources exceeded demand, the leadership mindset, combining logical analysis, optimism, competitive determination, verbal reasoning, inspiring oratory and charisma, has been highly successful. In a world in which demand exceeds supply, will our reliance on our competitive mindset turn things ugly?
Powerful nations are increasing their efforts to stake out claims on a variety of resources. As we witness the growing disparity of access to essential resources threatening our lifestyle, our innate tendency is to regress towards more basic survival instincts. This response has worked so well in our past survival-of-the-fittest battles that it is practically hard-wired into our brains. Yet an ego-centric approach is not the only possible way forward, nor is it desirable.
I think he is right on when he speaks about the need for a different style of leadership, but errs in pinning the problems of getting there to the structure of the brain. Cognitive scientists can now show that certain stimuli “light up” different places in the brain. Lighting up comes from the imaging techniques being used that show active portions as brighter than others. It is true that the brain has evolved along with our journey from our primate ancestors to the modern human being.
The individually oriented leadership mindset, which has dominated western culture for the past two hundred years stems from the front-left quadrant of our cerebral cortex. The proximity of the linear analytical reasoning capability and the language centre give this limited but rapid problem solving centre its voice and persuasive power.
But in the diametrically opposed quadrant is a more powerful multi-modal problem solving centre far more resonant with prevailing social needs. It specialises in envisioning possibilities for the future. Instead of conveying the findings of its analysis with words, these sophisticated solutions are ‘felt’ with metaphors and images.
Recent developments in cognitive science also show that the brain is a plastic mass of highly interconnected neurons that keeps reshaping the pathways that reflect the world outside and create responses to incoming signals. This means that we develop habits by following the norms of the many institutions within which we labor during the course of a day and over a lifetime. Habits can be said to be a fixed neuronal pattern that gets triggered by a certain sensory cue, including speech. Leadership habits, those Azmatullah points to, may reside in a certain part of the brain, but that does not mean they originated from there.
By focusing on the structure of the brain or mind, the author misses an important point. We use our brains mostly in ways we have become acculturated to. Nurture seems to outweigh nature. When faced with unfamiliar situations, where we have no ready-made response stored in the body, we may preferentially call upon certain parts of it. If these solutions are successful, they will become new norms. That is a primary reason that leadership can be categorized neatly. Although business is a dynamic sector with change happening all the time, the underlying cultural structure changes only slowly.
When the context of business changes, however, these old solutions will not work well. New ones must come forth. Azmatullah argues solutions that reflect the systemic nature of tomorrow’s problems will be very important.
But perhaps this looming set of crises will cause us to reflect more deeply on alternative ways of shaping our future. Transformational change across the global community in which we cultivate our sustainability mindset is possible and essential.
Solving global problems requires us to use our whole brains, analysing problems from both our logical-linear individualistic perspective and our multimodal collectivist perspective and synthesising the output from both.
Perhaps a few leaders will reach into the right quadrant of their brains and avoid the linear thinking that seems to characterize most strategic moves today. This might get the process moving, but it will take more than a shift in the place in the mind, that is a mindset, from which our solutions come. It will take a cultural change to make it happen routinely. And this needs more than cross-brained leaders; it requires a careful examination of the culture to understand what we have been doing to bring about the threats we face. Can business leaders trained in today’s business schools and building on this foundation along their path to leadership find the necessary critical skills in any part of their brains or minds? I doubt it, the rules they live by are very deeply embedded in the culture. The premises in the article about demand outweighing supply if extended to include all the unintended consequences of business-as-usual are generally being ignored or denied. Those who are concerned are but a minuscule few. It’s not the brain that is important right now. It cannot change if the ears are deaf and the eyes are blind.
It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.