Half-Court Games

Michael Metzger

Serious players don’t enjoy playing half-court games.

Basketball is designed to be played full-court. The NBA couldn’t sell tickets to half-court games. Yet this is how many businesspeople do business. They play a half-court game. Neuroimaging reveals they’re not serious about doing good business.

For several weeks we’ve been considering Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. A researcher in neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Baltimore, McGilchrist describes how an emissary has usurped the master in the making of our modern Western culture. Visual thinking, or metaphor, was historically the master, leading the way in how ancient societies thought. Reason was one of the master’s emissaries. Now the order is flipped. Reason rules, trapping Western culture in a “hall of mirrors,” he writes. The solution is restoring the master, but neuroimaging reveals this will be difficult.

Neuroimaging reveals metaphor is a right hemisphere function. Reason is a left hemisphere function. They’re designed to work together, but when the left leads the way, it eventually, over time, takes over the entire thinking process. McGilchrist says this has happened in the West over 500 years. It’s become a left-brain-only culture.

This is problematic because the right and left hemispheres see the world in different ways. In the right, we make sense of the world. With the left, we make things. But the left only sees things abstracted, broken into parts. It is only in the right that we understand meaning as a whole. The left sees particulars. The right sees patterns, acting as a wise sage. The left thinks dichotomies. The right thinks distinctions. The left is efficiency – “let’s get practical.” The right is effectiveness – purpose. The left thinks data and certainty. The right understands ambiguity and plays the role of provocateur, or devil’s advocate, questioning taken-for-granted assumptions. When a society begins to lead-with-the-left, it exhibits “unwarranted optimism,” warns McGilchrist. That is what has happened in Western culture. It’s become lead-with-the-left, forgetting ancient myths such as King Arthur and how his kingdom’s flourishing required a full court.

King Arthur’s Court, or Roundtable, included the king, a sage (Merlin), noble knights, and a devil’s advocate (a court jester). These four contributors had a place at the table. They constituted a full court. In a left-brain-only world, however, those who perform the right hemisphere functions – wise sages and devil’s advocates – generally do not get a seat at the table. This leaves left-brain-only businesspeople with half a court – CEO and senior executives seated at the roundtable. But the absence of sages and devil’s advocates indicates a business is not serious about doing good business.

There’s a world of difference between doing well financially and doing good. Businesses used to do both, as they historically saw themselves as social institutions. In the Great Depression, economist Ronald Coase argued that corporations should dispense with this quaint idea. Business became a “nexus of contracts between self-interested individuals.” The corporation existed to maximize profits. Sages and devil’s advocates became a drag on profits. They were dropped from the roundtable. The result is a half-court game, with right hemisphere considerations of meaning and purpose reduced to platitudes, poster boards, and motivational videos. They’re not taken seriously.

The solution is playing a full-court game. Lead-with-the-right businesses understand they are at risk of being unduly pragmatic when a sage is absent from the roundtable. Overconfidence inevitably results. They also understand they are at risk of myopia – narrowly defining success only in financial terms – when a devil’s advocate is absent. The solution is a roundtable that includes both. It can be done.

For 20 years, University of Southern California President Steven B. Sample provided the school with what he called “contrarian leadership.” He included a devil’s advocate on the board, a contrarian who exploded many taken-for-granted views of education. He also included sages to suggest better ways to educate. This is one reason why USC has become one of the premier educational institutions in the United States, experiencing a 25-point jump in the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings from 1991 to 2008.

USC’s success is largely due to including on the board level what Daniel Kahneman calls “the outside view.”<sup<1 Sages and devil’s advocates generally come from outside the business world. A sage sees broader patterns that transcend narrow business definitions of success. A devil’s advocate sees incongruities that businesspeople often overlook. He or she acts as a court jester, a safeguard against smugness. In a lead-with-the-left society, these two rarely get a place at the table, since left hemisphere leaders tend to see these right hemisphere contributions as a drag on efficiency.

It should be noted how having a sage and devil’s advocate at the table doesn’t guarantee a company will flourish. Their presence simply makes it more likely to happen. A company can do well financially without either one. But it’s unlikely to do good, seeking the flourishing of all, without a complete roundtable. Ancient faith traditions recognize this reality. Bishops and church councils historically served as sages. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church relied on the Office of Devil’s Advocate. Sages and provocateurs served as institutional buttresses, helping institutions play the game full-court.

That was then; this is now. Few business leaders today heed McGilchrist’s warning – how the left hemisphere “has blocked off the available exits, the ways out of the hall of mirrors.” Too many executive roundtables are simply a hall of mirrors, reflecting biases but leaving businesspeople blissfully unaware of the historic purpose of business. They’re playing a half-court game. Serious businesspeople, like serious basketball players, don’t do this. They play a full-court game, including sages and provocateurs on the board. It can be done. It simply requires a serious investment of time and money.

1 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), pp. 245-254.


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  1. Mike – grateful for the article/series.


    When you identify sages and court jesters for business, are these positions or personalities?

    Are you looking for colleagues who possess these right-brain characteristics to occupy existing left-brain positions, or is it the development of literal right-brain positions in an organization that is necessary?

    The example of the Catholic Church would indicate an “office” or “position”. Should this be extrapolated to business?

  2. Every church and pastor should ask and answer
    this question. Would our town,city,experience loss if their church closed up?

  3. Gerard

    As historic faith traditions thought institutionally, they treated these as institutions. Yes, they have “personalities,” but you are using the term in an individualistic sense. Good question.

  4. I heard John Polkinghorne say once, there are no interesting scientific facts in and of themselves, there is always a worldview being supported. Mike it is unclear to me how Neuroimaging and Neuroscience can measure metaphor and its perspective components, (imagination, teleology) or reason and it perspective components (logic, principles, truth). Science, in all its splendors has really only something to say about the physical world, how the brain physically responds to given thought stimulant. The debate over the prominence of metaphor vs reason is a philosophical question and search. McGilChrist has then tried to use scientific naturalism to defend postmodern thought/worldview; image over word, metaphor over reason.

    With all due respect, it just seems that there are many inconsistencies in this thinking of McGilChrist.
    – If the brain is the causal agent responsible for thinking, then as with all physical things your brain is governed by the nature laws; this then make humans intrinsically determinist. But as a determinist there could not exists this power struggle of left vs right, a winner-takes-all battle, it just would be – the natural laws indicate it ought to be.
    – If the left is responsible for reasoning, and the left often gets it wrong then how can we trust McGilChrist reasoning that he used to write his book? He could very well be mistaken about many things that he discusses both inside and outside his scientific findings.

    I guess one could say this is Enlightenment thinking but one would have to give reasons why I am “guilty” of that very thing. It just seems a throwing away of the baby (reason) with the bathwater (Enlightenment) syndrome is trying to dominate the intellectual world at the expence of any real truths.

  5. There is an article in the Wall Street Journal today (October 1, 2012) about a former British oil executive and now Catholic bishop who is serving as the “court jester” and “wise sage” of the British banking system. The article doesn’t delve into the right vs. left-brain thinking, but it does speak about a man with a good HEART who is trying to bring about the change Mike often writes about.

  6. Mark

    Great questions. In last week’s column, I noted how neuroimaging can measure hemispheric function. The process involves an individual who has lost all left or right brain function. Neuroimaging then reveals what the right hemisphere does when the left no longer functions – and vice versa.

  7. Thanks, I had gone back and read and am pretty sure I understood that concept.

    In my thinking, measuring hemispheric function is not the same as saying or concluding that the brain is producing what type of thoughts – little alone thought. Hemispheric function is only a reading of physical brain activity and has nothing to say to what type of thought. Scientific measuring is impossible since metaphor and reason are metaphysical in nature and cannot be detected or measured empirically. Saying the left is responsible for this thinking and the right responsible for that thinking is to presuppose the brain is causally responsible for thought. It seems to be a non-sequitur.

    I have to agree with Dallas Willard that I am a mind and I possess a body.

    However this position or type of thinking seems to be taken as a reductionist view of the body but that can only really be sustained if one is a physicalist, believing all that is real is the physical. On that note; I think there has been, to a degree, a slighting within the church of the importance of the physical entity we possess that needs to be corrected; however not at the expense of a soul/mind being the primary of my being.

    Mike, I truly wish we could get more Christians to start thinking at levels that you and your readers engage in.

  8. Excellent comments. Too often we only want to associate with people of like mind and beliefs.It affirms and validates our thinking. It is enjoyable to watch FOX News and then turn over to MSNBC. It allows perspective and encourages thinking. As the 17th century poet and theologian, Thomas Traherne stated…”as easy as it is to think, it is that much more difficult to think well”. That is why we need both sides speaking into our lives.

  9. “Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.” G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908)

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