Leadership And The Hidden Brain

Our decisive leadership activities may flow from our subscious minds.

By Brent Filson - 6/2010

A book just published “The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives” by Shankar Vedantam resonates with my leadership experiences.    

Vedantam contends that the “hidden brain” is composed of brain functions that occur outside our awareness but that can decisively direct our behavior. The hidden brain can determine whom we fall in love with, who we vote for, and which way to run when someone yells “Fire!”

Vedantam asserts that the hidden brain can also be deliberately manipulated to convince people to vote against their own interests, or even become suicide terrorists. And all this is accomplished without our consciously knowing it.

I submit that many leadership activities are motivated by the hidden brain of organizations.

All organizations operate on unconscious levels that involve culture, status quo, and assumptions.

1) Culture.  Culture is the predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize how organizations function. When people subscribe to a particular culture, they sign onto many conclusions that as individuals they have not necessarily thought through.   

For instance, a potent determinant of culture is leadership.  Generally speaking, organizations have one of two kinds of leadership cultures: order giving or motivational.

The order-giving culture is typically animated by a climate of fear.  But fear is the crack-cocaine of leadership, powerful in its immediate effects but destructive in the long run.

True motivation comes from choice.  The motivational leader sets up an environment in which the people make the free choice to be motivated.  Though some leaders might disagree, I submit that you can’t get great results on a continual basis in a culture of fear.  And a culture of fear employs a powerful, hidden, brain.

For example, I show leaders how to get more results faster continually.  But often the unconscious culture of the organization resists that prescription, especially if that culture is defined by order leadership.    

Many members of such such cultures fear getting big increases in results, though they may be unaware of such fear.  That fear has many sources, but fear of failure is on the top of the list; and often fear-of-failure, in its most virulent form, is established in the hidden brain of the organization.  

The culture might communicate to the world, We want to get more results.

But the culture’s hidden brain says, If I get more results, you only order me to get more and so set me up to fail. 

In other words, the hidden brain prevents people from achieving fundamental and lasting change.  Until the “hidden”  is exposed to the light of awareness and overthrown through motivational leadership, it will provide a persistent drag on the organization’s effectiveness.  

2) Status quo: The status quo, the existing state of an organization, invariably opposes any leader who wants to make significant changes in an organization.

The status quo is not interested in achieving increases in results.  The status quo is interesting in preserving its existence as the status quo.  If you want to make changes to achieve more results faster continually, you will be attacked by the status quo

Its first line of attack is passive resistence, and that resistence is most powerful when its motivation flows from the hidden brain of the organization, when people are actively going against new ideas and activities without being consciously aware of their approach. 

For instance, General Motors was imbued with a particularly pernicious status quo that allowed the Japanese and Korean car makers to make big inroads into their market share. 

On the surface, the status quo said, We can compete with Japanese car makers.  But the status quo’s hidden brain said, We don’t want to pay the price to compete with the Japanese; and if you ask us to pay that price, we will relentlessly resist you. 

3) Assumptions.  Assumptions can provide a toxic combination of culture and status quo.  I find Human Resources departments in many organizations are afflicted with the hidden brain of assumptions.

Clearly, the HR function has important roles to play in hiring, recruiting, training, benefits, compensation, rewards, regulation conformity, etc.  One of those functions is the hiring, developing and retaining of good leaders.  Such activities go right to the heart of earnings growth. 

However, when it comes to seeing the importance of achieving earnings growth through leadership development, most HR leaders are hampered  by the activities of the HR hidden brains. 

Because earnings growth is so vital to leadership development, the HR function should be a key earnings growth generator for the companies.

That means human resource leaders should see their role in corporations in fundamentally new ways.  They should be member of the C-Suite, the CROs, Chief Results Officer.

By embracing this role, they should attain higher pay and perks.  Yet the leaders are hampered by the assumptions in the HR hidden brain, which says, If investing in earnings growth activities is not in our HR budget, we won’t support those activities even though they add great value to our organization.   

Begin to map the contours of the hidden brain of your organization.  Start by identifying a single idea the hidden brain holds.  Ask these four questions .

1) Is the idea truly hidden?

2) If so, does it prevent the organizations from getting results?

3) Can it be changed or eliminated so those results are achieved?

4) Can you keep it from becoming hidden again?


6/2010© The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

The author of 23 books, Brent Filson's recent books are, THE LEADERSHIP TALK: THE GREATEST LEADERSHIP TOOL and 101 WAYS TO GIVE GREAT LEADERSHIP TALKS. He is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. – Celebrating 25 years of helping leaders of top companies worldwide achieve outstanding results every day. Sign up for his free leadership e-zine and get his FREE report "7 Steps To Leadership Mastery"