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.